Libya accepts U.S. apology over diplomatic row


  • World
  • Wednesday, 10 Mar 2010

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya signalled the end of a diplomatic row with the United States on Wednesday, saying it accepted an apology for acerbic comments made by a U.S. official and wanted to deepen relations in all areas.

The Libyan foreign ministry "states that it accepts the apology and strong regret shown by the State Department", it said in a statement obtained by Reuters.

The ministry said it "... welcomes resuming the exchange of visits between officials of the two countries and insists on its willingness to develop bilateral relations in all fields and within a framework of mutual respect."

U.S. energy firms including Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, Hess, Marathon and Occidental have invested billions of dollars in Libya, home to Africa's largest proven oil reserves.

The row with Washington centred on a speech Gaddafi made last month calling for a "jihad" against Switzerland, with which Tripoli has a long-running dispute.

The word is often translated as meaning "armed struggle" but Libyan officials later said Gaddafi meant only a trade embargo.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Gaddafi's speech reminded him of a previous address by the Libyan leader, which, he said, involved "lots of words and lots of papers flying all over the place, not necessarily a lot of sense".

Libya responded by summoning the U.S. envoy in Tripoli to protest, then warning U.S. energy firms they could suffer unless Washington apologised for Crowley's remarks.

In Washington on Tuesday, Crowley apologised, telling reporters: "I understand that my personal comments were perceived as a personal attack on the president."

"These comments do not reflect U.S. policy and were not intended to offend. I apologize if they were taken that way."

The London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper quoted Shokri Ghanem, head of Libya's state energy firm NOC, as saying before the U.S. apology that the diplomatic row had prompted Libya to start looking for new energy partners.

The Libyan foreign ministry's statement on Wednesday did not say whether the warning to U.S. energy firms still applied.

STRAINED FRIENDSHIP

Libya, which spent decades under international sanctions until it renounced weapons of mass destruction in 2003, is still locked in a dispute with most European countries over entry visas that is linked to the Swiss row.

Libyan relations with Switzerland broke down in mid-2008 with the arrest of a son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in a Geneva hotel on charges of mistreating two domestic servants.

The charges were soon dropped but Tripoli cut oil supplies to Switzerland, withdrew more than $5 billion from Swiss bank accounts and this month imposed a trade embargo on the neutral alpine country.

More European countries were pulled into the dispute when Libya blocked visas for citizens of the Schengen passport-free zone, including most of the European Union, after the Swiss barred entry to some Libyans including Gaddafi and his family.

The dispute is uncomfortable for European governments that struck up friendly ties with Gaddafi after Libya emerged from sanctions and began cooperating on security and migration.

Europe is also benefiting from Libya's oil wealth as it hands out business deals and takes stakes in European firms.

Libya's ambassador in Rome, Hafed Gaddur, played down the effect of the Swiss dispute on Libya's investment decisions.

"Libya will continue to invest with the countries that are its friends in areas it considers interesting," Gaddur told reporters on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Ali Shuaib in Tripoli; Additional reporting by Lamine Chikhi in Algiers and Paolo Biondi in Rome; Writing by Christian Lowe and Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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