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Blair: Libya can help fight terror

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Expanding business in Libya
start quoteYou are looking good, you are still young.end quote
-- Gadhafi to Blair
start quoteIt's good to be here at last after so many months.end quote
-- Blair to Gadhafi
Do you agree with Tony Blair's decision to visit Libya?
Moammar Gadhafi
Great Britain
Tony Blair

(CNN) -- Libya can be an important partner in fighting terrorism if it fulfills its pledge to give up weapons of mass destruction, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has said following a historic meeting with Moammar Gadhafi.

Blair praised Colonel Gadhafi's work in dismantling his chemical, nuclear and biological programs, under plans he announced in December, and said his cooperation with Britain and the U.S. sent a strong signal to the Arab world.

The prime minister made his remarks to reporters after a meeting in Tripoli with the Libyan leader, once condemned by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan as "this mad dog of the Middle East."

Referring to the 1988 Lockerbie airliner bombing for which Libya has admitted responsibility and paid compensation, Blair has promised "not to forget the pain of the past."

But he said Libya's "full and transparent" co-operation over the dismantling of its WMD programs meant it was now time to "build a new relationship."

He admitted it felt "strange" visiting Libya but hailed a "new partnership" with the country.

He said Gadhafi recognized "a common cause" in the fight against "al Qaeda, extremism and terrorism, which threatens not just the western world but the Arab world also."

Libya's foreign minister confirmed his country's opposition to al Qaeda. "We have an alliance against this movement," Reuters reported Mohamed Abderrhmane Chalgam as saying.

"For us they are a real obstacle against our progress, against our security, against women ... against any change in our region."

In return for Libya's cooperation, Blair said Britain would strengthen cultural links and offer the north African state military cooperation.

Earlier Thursday Blair and Gadhafi symbolically shook hands in a tent and smiled for the cameras.

"You are looking good, you are still young," Gadhafi told Blair in English, Reuters reported. Blair replied: "It's good to be here at last after so many months."

Oil giant Shell also confirmed its return to Libya on Thursday by signing a landmark agreement with the country's national oil company.

The group said the tie-up involved the establishment of a long-term strategic partnership in the Libyan oil and gas industry.

Gary Samore, a senior fellow of the International Institute for Strategic Studies who advised the Clinton administration on weapons issues, said the wariness in some parts about the visit was understandable.

"It's understandable that people don't want to forget (Lockerbie). And it's also worth remembering that the person who was in charge of Libya then is still there now.

"So the greatest risk for Blair is if we see evidence that Libya is not sincere in cooperating against al Qaeda or is still harboring ambitions to develop nuclear and chemical weapons programs.

"But as long as that information doesn't come to light a strong case can be made that it's in British interests to reward Libya for the measures it's taken.

Blair has shrugged off domestic criticism, saying the visit was a risk worth taking to make the world safer and build new alliances against militant Islamists.

The last British leader to visit Tripoli was Winston Churchill during World War II.

Relations between Britain and Libya improved last year after Tripoli accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing, and agreed to pay compensation to the victims' families.

A Libyan agent was jailed for the bombing. After last year's agreement, Britain introduced a resolution in the U.N. Security Council lifting sanctions on Libya.

On Tuesday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns became the first U.S. diplomat to visit Gadhafi since the early 1980s. (Full story)

That meeting came amid speculation Washington may soon lift sanctions against the North African nation.

Burns "had good discussions in Libya," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters in Washington, describing the meeting as "productive."

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