Italian FM in first visit to post-Gadhafi Libya

September 30, 2011 - 8:40 AM
Mideast Libya Weapons

Kids sit next to a pickup truck with an anti-aircraft machine gun belonging to the revolutionary forces, Tripoli, Libya, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011. More than a month since revolutionary forces seized the Libyan capital, the heavy thud of anti-aircraft guns and the crackle of automatic weapon fire still echoes across the city, and bands of young fighters in pickup trucks bristling with heavy weapons cruise the streets. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Italy's foreign minister, in his first visit to Libya since Moammar Gadhafi's fall, says his country is ready to unfreeze 2.5 billion euros ($3.4 billion) in frozen Libyan assets.

Franco Frattini said Friday that Italy has authorization to release the money as requested for urgent projects to help Libya's new rulers rebuild their country despite continued fighting with supporters of the fugitive leader on three fronts.

Frattini is the latest in a string of foreign dignitaries to travel to Libya after revolutionary forces seized Tripoli and much of the rest of the country late last month.

On Thursday, U.S. Sen. John McCain and three other Republican senators traveled to Tripoli. The British, French and Turkish leaders also have visited.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — U.S. Sen. John McCain called Libya's revolutionaries an inspiration to the world, singling out activists in Syria, Iran, China and Russia, Thursday as he led a Republican delegation to Tripoli. It was the most prominent American delegation to travel to the Libyan capital since the fall of Moammar Gadhafi's regime.

McCain, a former presidential candidate from Arizona, expressed confidence in Libya's new leaders but urged them to rein in armed groups and to press the hunt for Gadhafi, who has continued to try to rally supporters from his hiding place.

McCain said he was thrilled to be in Tripoli after traveling in April to the then-opposition's eastern stronghold of Benghazi.

"I've dreamed of returning to a liberated capital of a free Libya ever since I visited Benghazi in April and our visit to Tripoli today has been exhilarating and hopeful," McCain said.

But he expressed concern about the proliferation of weapons and armed groups, saying it was important for the country's leadership "to continue bringing the many armed groups in this city and beyond it under the responsible control of its legitimate governing authority."

"It's also important to bring this war to a dignified and irreversible conclusion, to bring Gadhafi and his family and his fighters to justice, while ensuring that past wrongs do not become a license for future crimes, especially against minorities," he said.

Interpol placed another of Gadhafi's sons, al-Saadi, on the equivalent of its most-wanted list on Thursday, placing pressure on the government of Niger to surrender a man accused of overseeing bloody repressions.

A Niger presidential spokesman has said al-Saadi Gadhafi is living under house arrest in the Western African country's capital, Niamey, after fleeing Libya earlier this month via the desert bordering the two nations.

Interpol has already issued red notices for Moammar Gadhafi and his son Seif al-Islam based on a request by the International Criminal Court. Both men have been charged with crimes against humanity.

The four lawmakers, who also included Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Marco Rubio of Florida, addressed reporters after meeting with the head of the National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, and other high-ranking officials from the group that is now governing Libya.

They also toured Martyrs' Square, formerly named Green Square and the site of frequent Gadhafi speeches, and visited a prison amid allegations of poor conditions and human rights violations by former rebels taking revenge on former Gadhafi supporters.

Graham said that Libyans who met the team of visiting senators had expressed gratitude and want to repay the international community that rallied around Gadhafi's opponents. NATO airstrikes played a key role in decimating Gadhafi's military forces as rebels battled their way into the capital late last month and forced Gadhafi into hiding.

"There is a desire here by the Libyan people to make sure that those who helped will get paid back," Graham said.

American companies are hoping to tap into the wealth of oil and natural resources and other opportunities in Libya, which under Gadhafi long faced sanctions that prohibited much business.

"I think that American investors are more than eager to come invest here in Libya and we hope and believe that they will be given an opportunity to do so," McCain said.

He acknowledged, however, that it would be difficult for companies to get started until the country is completely secure. Gadhafi loyalists continue to put up a fierce resistance in three strongholds in central and southern Libya.

McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Libyan success in ousted Gadhafi was inspiring activists in other countries.

"The people of Libya today are inspiring the people in Tehran, in Damascus and even in Beijing and Moscow," he said. "They continue to inspire the world and let people know that even the worst dictators can be overthrown and be replaced by freedom and democracy."

U.S. relations with Gadhafi's regime had undergone a seismic shift in recent years after the longtime Libyan leader renounced weapons of mass destruction in 2003 and agreed to pay compensation to the families of victims of 1980s terror attacks, including the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, blamed on Libyan agents.

The senators said they were confident the country's new rulers would help seek justice in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, which killed 270 people, many of them Americans.

Scotland has asked the new transitional leaders of Libya for help tracking down those responsible now that Gadhafi is no longer in power. The only suspect convicted in the attack, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, was freed on compassionate grounds in 2009 because of illness and is said to be in Tripoli.

"We'd like to know who else was connected with this," McCain said.

Libya's acting justice minister, Mohammed al-Alagi, said earlier this week that there was no reason to drag al-Megrahi back to court but he was willing to probe the possible involvement of others in the attack.

The trip contrasted sharply to the last visit by McCain and Graham to Tripoli in August 2009, when they met with Gadhafi and his son Muatassim to discuss the possible delivery of non-lethal defense equipment as the erratic Libyan leader was moving to normalize his relations with the international community.

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Associated Press writer Donna Cassata in Washington contributed to this report.