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In Beleaguered Libya, Hints of a Lower Profile

April 12, 1987|Eric Margolis | Eric Margolis is foreign-affairs specialist for the Toronto Sun newspaper chain.

TRIPOLI, LIBYA — "I am not a terrorist," Moammar Kadafi told me, "and we do not conduct terrorist operations." Natty in a new-wave, gray flight suit and black leather jump boots, Libya's leader seemed somehow faintly out of place in the gaily colored Bedouin tent where our interview was held. "But we do support legitimate national liberation movements like the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), SWAPO (South-West Africa People's Organization) and the IRA (Irish Republican Army)," explained a relaxed and rather subdued Kadafi.

Outside the tent, however, on the grounds of Bab el-Aziziya military complex, Kadafi's security detail was anything but relaxed. A total blackout was in force. Inside the thick walls, Soviet-made BMP armored fighting vehicles and T-72 tanks stood ready. The gate through which we had come was enfiladed by the guns of dug-in tanks. In spite of the darkness, the new crescent moon still cast enough light to show damage from the April 15, 1986, U.S. bombing of Kadafi's headquarters and home.

A year later, Libyans are still nervous and afraid. People rush to windows at the sound of a car backfiring, as if half expecting to see U.S. warplanes wheeling in the sky over Tripoli. Kadafi insists, as well, that the United States and France are still trying to kill him. "They tried assassination and poisoning," he told me. "When these failed, they used aircraft to bomb my house." The Libyan leader is said to remain deeply depressed over the death in the raid of his infant stepdaughter. On the nightly news there is constant reference to the "terrorist baby-murderer Reagan."

Libyans are also hurting from the diplomatic isolation imposed on them by Washington and the European Economic Community as well as the economic pinch caused by a 50% drop in oil revenues. Food and all sorts of goods are in chronic short supply; Eastern European-style queuing has become a painful way of life in Libya's socialized economy. On top of these woes, the recent collapse of pro-Libyan forces in Chad has sent a chill of apprehension through Tripoli.

Kadafi insisted that French troops, not the motley Chadian forces of Paris' ally, Hissen Habre, won the recent battles at Faya Largeau and Ouadi Doum. According to Libyan sources, there were only 2,000 Libyan technicians and advisers with the pro-Libyan forces in Chad. There are, however, 10,000 Libyan regulars, backed by aircraft and armor, in the Aozou Strip, 44,000 square miles of territory on the Libyan-Chad border--a legacy of dispute left by the region's former French and Italian colonial rulers. Libya, I was told, will fight hard for Aozou; the question now is whether French forces will continue their northward drive.

Washington, which has been supplying cash, arms and advisers to the anti-Libyan forces, would probably be delighted to see this happen. At the same time, Libya asserts, French and American naval units are maneuvering off their coast. As concern grows in Tripoli over the nation's vulnerable southern frontier, Libya must also mount guard on its long borders with hostile Egypt and Tunisia. For a small nation of 3.5 million, doesn't Libya have too many enemies?

"No," Kadafi replied, staring defiantly. "We will remain steadfast." But not all Libyans share this view. There appears to be a growing trend inside Libya's ruling circles to back away from confrontation and extremism, to pull in Libya's dented horns and assume a lower--and safer--profile. Surprisingly, proponents of this view, who also appear markedly pro-Western, are plain-spoken in their criticism of past "excesses" and Libya's role as self-appointed champion of world revolution. "We talk too much, too loud," one policy-maker told me.

Kadafi, too, seemed to be edging away from his former uncritical support of anyone who arrived in Tripoli and claimed to be a "freedom fighter" against imperialism. He plainly described the Basque separatists in Spain, Italy's Red Brigades and Germany's Bader-Meinhoff gang as "terrorists." What, then, about the mysterious Abu Nidal? Yes, Kadafi admitted, he is very much alive and Libya does support him but does not agree with his methods. Attacks on innocent civilians must not be permitted, he said.

Why, with all its problems, does Libya keep up its lonely struggle against U.S. influence in the Mideast? One senior Libyan foreign-policy-maker provided a partial answer when asked if his country did not go out of its way to look for trouble. "Yes, of course," he replied with a laugh, "but we need trouble, it makes us feel good." What he meant is that Libya, not so long ago a mere geographical afterthought on the road from Cairo to Tunis, is today basking in the limelight of worldwide notoriety.

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