A senior State Department envoy will visit Libya next week to lay groundwork for a visit to the North African country by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. A Rice visit would highlight the dramatic improvement in relations that began when Libya renounced weapons of mass destruction in 2003. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

State Department officials say Rice has decided in principle to make the ground-breaking Libyan visit, and that Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Welch will discuss specific plans for the trip when he goes to Tripoli next week.

U.S.-Libyan relations went into a tailspin after Muammar Gadhafi took power in 1969 and they were formally severed in 1980 amid charges the Gadhafi government was supporting terrorism.

The recovery began in 2003 when Libya, after secret talks with the United States and Britain, announced it was abandoning weapons of mass destruction programs.

It also accepted responsibility for the 1988 bombing of a U.S. Pan Am jumbo jet over Scotland that killed nearly 300 people, and agreed to pay nearly $3 billion to families of the victims.

Bilateral relations were fully normalized more than a year ago, though some problem issues relating to Pan Am compensation and other matters remain.

A senior U.S. diplomat who spoke to reporters here said Libya's release last month of six Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor - held for eight years on disputed charges of infecting Libyan children with the HIV/AIDS virus - "changed the atmosphere" of international dealings with Tripoli, and influenced Rice's decision to visit.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack says Rice believes it is appropriate now to make the visit and highlight the new relationship, which the Bush administration has depicted as one of its major foreign policy successes.

"She would like to mark the fact that this is a very changed relationship since she first entered the Bush administration as the National Security Adviser," he said. "And that is in part due to a lot of hard work done during the Clinton administration, and a lot of hard work done during the Bush administration. So it is a natural step in the evolution of the ties between our two countries, and she had an interest under the right conditions in moving those ties forward."

McCormack said Assistant Secretary Welch will discuss in Tripoli the timing and circumstances under which Rice would visit. The senior diplomat, however, said the Bush administration was not setting conditions for the visit, which reportedly could occur before the end of the year, possibly in October.

Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte went to Tripoli in April mainly to discuss the situation in Sudan's troubled Darfur region, which borders Libya.

On his trip next week, Assistant Secretary Welch will first visit Paris for talks with French officials on the situation in Lebanon, including bitterly contested plans for the parliament in Beirut to elect a president next month.

After Libya, Welch will go to Oman for talks with leaders of that moderate Arab state on Gulf regional issues and U.S.-led efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.