Mandela begins visit to Gadafy despite concern about sanctions


President Nelson Mandela of South Africa arrived in Libya yesterday, sternly dismissing US reservations about his mission. The visit is described by diplomats as the most important for the Libyan leader, Col Muammar Gadafy, since the United Nations imposed sanctions in 1992.

Mr Mandela, his Mozambican companion, Ms Graca Machel, and Foreign Minister, Mr Alfred Nzo, arrived at the Libyan border town of Ras Adjir by helicopter from the nearby Tunisian resort island of Djerba.

They then drove the 160km to Tripoli. This was because of the UN air embargo.

Mr Mandela's 50-vehicle convoy passed under a series of welcoming banners, including one that set the tone: "Mandela's visit to Libya is a devastating blow to America."

After a triumphant cavalcade around downtown Tripoli, Mr Mandela (79) was greeted by Col Gadafy outside the ruined home in which the Libyan leader's daughter, Hana, is said to have died in a US air raid more than 10 years ago.

Greeting Col Gadafy with a hug and a kiss on each cheek, Mr Mandela told him: "My brother leader, my brother leader. How nice to see you."

Shortly afterwards he told reporters that he remained unimpressed by US opposition to his mission, adding: "Those who say I should not be here are without morals. I am not going to join them in their lack of morality."

Mr Mandela said he had spent 27 years in jail rather than abandon his principles under pressure, and that he felt the same way about his debt to Col Gadafy and the Libyan people for their support in the struggle against apartheid.

"This man helped us at a time when we were all alone, when those who say we should not come here were helping the enemy [South Africa's white government]," Mr Mandela said.

He reiterated South Africa's policy on the United Nations sanctions that a way should be found to lift them. The sanctions are intended to force Libya to hand over two suspects for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland.

Mr Mandela said South Africa supported the call by the Organisation of African Unity for a trial in a neutral third country.

He said he would seek to promote a resolution of the stalemate between Libya and the United States and Britain at the Commonwealth summit in Edinburgh next week.

"It would be premature now to say exactly how we are going to search for a solution. feel that to maintain these sanctions is to punish the ordinary people of Libya, and that is why there is now great concern that the remaining sanctions must be lifted."

Diplomats in Tunisia said Mr Mandela was Col Gadafy's most significant guest since the sanctions were imposed.

"Col Gadafy receives a regular stream of African leaders in Tripoli, but it would be fair to say that with his international stature, Mr Mandela is the most significant visitor he has received since 1992," said an African diplomat.

No Western leader has visited Tripoli since Col Gadafy, arguing they would not be treated fairly, refused to deliver the two Lockerbie suspects for trial in the US or Britain.

The Libyan leader has offered to send them for trial in a neutral state, a proposal rejected by London and Washington.

The US has branded Libya a terrorist state and, in line with its policy of discouraging trade or diplomatic relations, on Monday renewed its objection to Mr Mandela's visit.

"We would be disappointed if he decided to make such a trip. To give [the Libyans] any solace at a time like this would be unfortunate," said the US State Department spokesman, Mr James Rubin.

Mr Ebrahim Saley, South Africa's ambassador to Tunisia and Libya, said, however, that Libya had offered Mr Mandela's ANC consistent moral support throughout the 30-year armed struggle against white rule in South Africa, including training and financial backing which helped the party to sweep apartheid into history.

Mr Mandela visited Libya twice between his release from jail in 1990 and his election as South Africa's President in 1994.