TRIPOLI, Libya – Libya staged a lavish spectacle Tuesday, parading white-robed horsemen and gold-turbaned dancers as jets streaked overhead to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the coup that brought Moammar Gadhafi to power in the oil-rich nation.
The four-day festivities were designed to highlight the volatile leader’s acceptance on the world stage, but were overshadowed by new controversies about the return of the only man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing. While African leaders held a summit to coincide with the celebrations, most Western leaders stayed away.
The Libyan leader, known for his outlandish outfits and penchant for conducting state business in tents, kicked off the celebrations before dawn Tuesday, timed to coincide with the start of the coup, with a feast at a former U.S. air base that was later turned into a Libyan military camp.
Addressing the audience, Gadhafi said that as a young Libyan lieutenant he’d been barred from entering the base by an American soldier.
“I told the soldier: ‘You’ll see what the future has in store,”‘ said Gadhafi. “I don’t think the American soldier quite measured the scope of my words.”
The return home of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the only man convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing that killed 270 people, overshadowed the celebrations. Scottish officials released him Aug. 20 on compassionate grounds because doctors said he was suffering from terminal prostate cancer and had only three months to live. But his release and warm homecoming in Libya outraged many of the victims’ families and U.S. officials.
Libya’s decision to include a video clip during the anniversary celebration show of al-Megrahi stepping off the plane from Scotland to roaring cheers could stoke even more anger. The segment, which lasted only a few seconds, came at the end of a video presentation chronicling Gadhafi’s accomplishments since the 1969 coup.
Intense public pressure over al-Megrahi’s release has sent the British and Scottish governments scrambling to respond. On Tuesday, both governments made public their correspondence on his release showing some British officials advised Scotland’s government that there were no legal obstacles to returning al-Megrahi to Libya.
Other documents showed British Justice Secretary Jack Straw initially believed al-Megrahi should be excluded from a prisoner transfer agreement signed between the U.K. and Libya, but later changed his mind – saying he did not wish to damage the “beneficial relationship” between the two countries.
“Developing a strong relationship with Libya, and helping it to reintegrate into the international community, is good for the U.K.,” Straw said in that letter to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond.
“Libya is one of only two countries to have ever voluntarily and transparently dismantled its weapons of mass destruction program. Having sponsored terrorist attacks in the past, it is now an important partner in the fight against terrorism.”
The man at the centre of the spiraling debate has been hospitalized in Tripoli this week, and Libyan officials said Tuesday his health was quickly deteriorating since his return home. Asked how long al-Megrahi still has to live, the head of Libyan State Information Agency, Majid al-Dursi, said: “Only God knows … but he is dying now.”
The Lockerbie controversy was not the only one dogging the celebrations.
In a sign of how tightly the government was trying to control the festivities, Italy said Libya wanted an Italian air force acrobatic team flying over Tripoli to only emit green smoke – a colour Gadhafi associates with his regime.
Italy threatened to ground the planes, and, in a victory for the former colonial ruler, when the jets did fly Tuesday night, they emitted their traditional red, white and green colours of the Italian flag.
Rome has maintained generally good relations with Gadhafi, and Libya is a major supplier of gas and oil to Italy, Libya’s former colonial ruler. Italian Premier Silvia Berlusconi met with Gadhafi in Libya on Sunday to mark the one-year anniversary of a friendship treaty with Tripoli.
Gadhafi, 67, has courted many controversies during his rule. He toppled Libya’s king in a largely bloodless coup on Sept. 1, 1969, and has been at the helm of the North African country ever since, sometimes referred to as “The Guide,” or more frequently “Brother Leader.”
His rule has been erratic, blending a local form of socialism with Islam in a largely government-less state where masses are meant to rule through local assemblies. In practice, this has meant an autocratic regime.
The son of modest desert Bedouins, Gadhafi was a 27-year-old army captain when he led a group of young officers to power. After the coup, Gadhafi nationalized most of the American and other Western assets in Libya, fast souring relations with much of the outside world.
During the following decades, he promoted a hard-line form of pan-Arabism, recruiting militias, funding rebellions and sending his army to fight across much of northern Africa. He was accused of harbouring several prominent terrorists and hosted militant training camps, while sponsoring other attacks himself.
These included a 1986 bomb blast at a Berlin discotheque frequented by U.S. troops that led to U.S. retaliatory airstrikes that Libyan officials said killed 41 people, including Gadhafi’s adopted baby daughter.
A video presentation aired during the anniversary celebration showed ex-President Ronald Reagan announcing the attacks in a segment titled “The Failed Aggression Against Libya.” A defiant Gadhafi was shown at the time saying “the attacks will not faze us.”
There were also erratic moments during his rule, including a shouting match at an Arab League summit where he insulted the king of Saudi Arabia live on television.
More recently, the Libyan leader has tried to restore his country’s standing in the world and transform it from a pariah state to an accepted member of the international community.
Gadhafi surprised the international community by agreeing to dismantle his country’s weapons of mass destruction programs. The United States restored ties with Libya in 2006 after Libya agreed to resolve the Lockerbie case in a deal that included paying compensation to the victims’ families.
Libya is now one of the world’s largest oil producers and a key European supplier of natural gas.
Gadhafi will make his first visit to the U.S. later this month to address the United Nations in what was expected to be the culmination of years of effort to repair his international image.
George Joffe, a Libya expert at the Center of International Studies at Britain’s Cambridge University, said while there has been outrage over al-Megrahi’s release and homecoming, the West is clearly holding back its criticism of Gadhafi because they are interested in the country’s oil.
Joffe said he doubted the controversy will have any real long-term repercussions. “My guess is within a matter of weeks the matter will have been allowed to blow over,” he said.
Associated Press writer Sebastian Abbot in Cairo contributed to this report.