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Kadafi's Role as Peacemaker Draws Applause, Skepticism


PARIS — For more than three decades, he has arguably been the world's most outrageous leader. But these days, is Libya's Moammar Kadafi mellowing?

Thanks to 15 weeks of Libyan mediation--and reported ransom payments of $1 million per person--six of the dozen Western hostages held by Muslim rebels in the faraway Philippines were released this week.

France's foreign aid minister, Charles Josselin, flew to Tripoli, Libya's capital, to publicly thank the North African country's "guide" (Kadafi) for his role in liberating the captives, who included three Frenchwomen.

Just so the world understood who, in the Libyans' view, the true practitioners of violence are, the welcoming ceremonies for the freed Westerners were held next to the ruins of Kadafi's Tripoli home, destroyed by a punitive U.S. airstrike in 1986.

"This feat rehabilitates Libya's image 12 years after the bombing [blamed on Libya] that caused a Pan Am jet to crash over Lockerbie in Scotland, killing 270 people," Le Soir, one of Belgium's most respected newspapers, editorialized.

According to Le Canard Enchaine, a well-connected Paris weekly, in exchange for Libya's assistance in the hostage affair, French authorities agreed to help Kadafi try to shed his status of international pariah. For the French, that means downplaying the Libyan leader's suspected role in yet another airliner bombing--the attack on a French DC-10 in 1989 that killed all 170 people on board.

Last year, six Libyans were convicted in absentia by a French court for the bombing over the Sahara Desert and given life sentences.

"Kadafi is stringing along the West," objected Juliette Bessif, a former Sorbonne professor who is one of Europe's leading scholars on Libya. "This is typical for Kadafi--he goes from bankrolling terrorism and terrorist attacks to being a peacemaker. But the Western powers--the United States, France, Germany and the rest--are treating him with kid gloves because he has lots of oil."

Libyan petroleum reserves are estimated at nearly 29 billion barrels--the world's ninth-largest stockpile.

Kadafi , who came to power in a 1969 coup, has great influence over the Muslim insurgents in the Philippines, Bessif said, because he once helped fund them and other Islamic radicals worldwide.

In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, John R. Bolton, a former assistant secretary of state, accused the Clinton administration of engaging in "appeasement" of Kadafi. Last week, it was revealed that the United States and Britain had told Libya that if two Libyan suspects in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing were turned over for trial, their testimony would "not be used to undermine the Libyan regime." That appeared to mean that Kadafi, widely suspected of having been the mastermind of the bombing, was himself at no risk of exposure or retaliation from the Lockerbie trial, now underway in the Netherlands.

In 1981, Washington broke off relations with Libya, accusing Kadafi's regime of supporting terrorism. But a twist in events this week is forcing U.S. officials to mute the usual hostile rhetoric--and take another look at Kadafi and his motives.

This week, the rebels in the southern Philippines abducted a 24-year-old American. If the United States, like the Europeans, requests Libyan help to broker the Oakland man's release, a Foreign Ministry official in Tripoli made clear, Libya would not "sneak away."

State Department spokesman Phil Reeker refused specific comment on the Libyan offer the day it was made. But the U.S. official added, "We support efforts by negotiators, whomever they may be, to find a quick resolution to this case."

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