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Libya heads U.N. Security Council

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  • Position is big turnabout for nation long seen as a sponsor of terrorism
  • Council presidency rotates monthly, based on alphabetical order in English
  • Security Council voted in 2003 to lift decades-old sanctions against Libya
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UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- After years as an international pariah, Libya on Thursday ascended the world stage, taking over the rotating post as president of the U.N. Security Council.

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Giadalla Ettalhi

Libya's representative to the United Nations, Giadalla Ettalhi, said it was "quite a challenge" to assume the presidency in the first month that the North African country has been allowed a seat on the council, "but we will do our best."

"For a country that has been a decade under U.N. sanctions, it is very important and very significant, I think, that we are in the Security Council," he said. "This is very, very important for us, especially when you take into consideration that we have been elected almost unanimously."

The Security Council lifted sanctions against Libya in 2003.

Ettalhi said the council's January program would focus on Arab and African issues, but refused to answer questions about his country's specific positions on issues, particularly about Iran and the possibility the Security Council might impose more sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

But he noted that Libya supports the right countries' rights "to the peaceful use of nuclear energy" and opposes "the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, be that nuclear or conventional."

"I do not wish to speak in a final manner on my country's position in the event there is a project or plan to impose further sanctions," he said, "but as a country that has suffered from sanctions, we would definitely be in a difficult position when sanctions are proposed."

There are 15 members of the Security Council -- five permanent members -- France, the United States, Britain, Russia and China, which all have veto power -- and 10 members elected for two-year terms. The presidency of the Security Council rotates monthly based on the alphabetical order of the member countries in English.

Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Croatia and Vietnam joined Libya for the start of their first year on the council. Belgium, Indonesia, Italy, Panama and South Africa began their second year.

Libya's big step in the United Nations came on the same day that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice steered U.S. relations with Libya into new, calmer waters with a meeting in her offices with her Libyan counterpart, Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam -- the first such Washington meeting in 35 years.

Rice did so despite protests from American families still pressing Libya for full compensation for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Rice had met previously with the Libyans, but in New York, under the umbrella of the United Nations. Even Thursday, reporters and cameras were kept away, with only an official photographer to record the event.

At a later ceremony at the State Department -- a signing of a new U.S.-Libyan agreement on scientific and technology cooperation -- Shalqam said he and Rice had discussed how the two countries could work together on a variety of fronts.

"I think we can work together for peace," he said, including working on bringing peace to Darfur and combating terrorism.

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In addition, he said, sending more Libyan students to the United States would create a new tie between the two countries. "We don't speak any more of war or confrontation or terrorism. No, on the contrary," he said, speaking in English.

Libyans are suddenly much more visible on the world stage, highlighted by a recent trip to France by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

The United States removed Libya from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and lifted economic sanctions in a multi-stage process that became final in 2006.

Since then, contacts and trade have surged. Difficulties remain, however, especially since Libya has refused to grant the final $2 million (of a total $10 million package) to each of the families of the Pan Am 103 victims.

Some of the families Thursday criticized Rice for meeting the Libyans.

"The Libyans have not fulfilled their obligations to the American victims of terrorism," said Kara M. Weipz, president of the group Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, in a telephone interview with CNN. "In the 1980s the Libyans committed acts of terrorism. They need to be held accountable and punished."

In a U.S. State Department statement released to reporters after the Rice-Shalqam meeting, spokesman Sean McCormack said compensation had been discussed.

"Secretary Rice urged Libya to move forward in resolving outstanding claims by families of terror victims against the Libyan government and raised human rights as an important agenda item for our bilateral relationship," the statement said.

Weipz -- whose brother was killed aboard Pan Am 103 -- said she is troubled by Rice saying repeatedly that she plans to visit Libya before the Bush administration leaves office.

"What message are we sending?" Weipz asked. "We are in a war on terror, correct? And we should send our secretary of state to a regime that has knowingly committed terrorist acts without fulfilling their commitments? I'd rather feel the State Department is working on my side, protecting my brother's memory."

Families say they have tried to meet Rice without success.

"We request a meeting to hear an explanation of why they have not been working more diligently to have the Libyans comply," Glenn Johnson Jr., another member of Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, told CNN.

His 21-year-old daughter was killed when the plane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland.

McCormack told reporters at his midday State Department briefing Thursday that U.S. officials have "reached out" to the families. "There are a lot of requests to meet with the secretary and we look at them very closely," he said.

Weipz said the families will keep asking for a meeting: "You can push us away. We are not going anywhere." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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