U.S. Moves Closer to Libya, Rebukes Venezuela

State Department announces that Washington is resuming full diplomatic ties with Libya for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century. The State Department also announces that the United States is suspending arms sales to Venezuela. The Bush administration says it's concerned about Venezuela's lack of support for counterterrorism efforts.

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The United States is restoring full diplomatic ties with the north African nation of Libya. It's a reward for that country's decision to scrap its weapons of mass destruction programs. Libya has long been a pariah state. It was held responsible for terrorist bombings in the 1980s.

But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, the state department now says that Libya and its leader, Momar Khadafi, are out of the terrorism business.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

For Dan Cohen, who lost a daughter in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, today's announcement was a personal blow. He has remained one of the most outspoken critics of Libyan leader Momar Khadafi. Khadafi's government compensated families of the Pan Am bombing, but Cohen says the Libyan leader never accepted personal responsibility.

Mr. DAN COHEN (Father of terrorism victim): Khadafi hasn't changed. Khadafi has shown no remorse. Khadafi hasn't even admitted that he did it, and yet here we're going to go and restore diplomatic relationships. It is such a disgusting act.

KELEMEN: Cohen believes the move is just about tapping Libya's oil wealth. But Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, who lost a friend in the Pan Am bombing, says the U.S. made the decision after carefully watching Libya's behavior.

Mr. DAVID WELCH (U.S. Assistant Secretary of State): This decision is not undertaken because Libya has oil. This decision is undertaken because they've addressed our national security concerns.

KELEMEN: In 2003, Khadafi announced that he was giving up his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Since then the U.S. has moved step by step to improve relations and ease trade sanctions. Now Welch says the U.S. is planning to reopen an embassy in Tripoli and intends to take Libya of the list of state sponsors of terrorism. He sees all of this as a message to Iran, which is in a diplomatic standoff with the U.S. over a suspected nuclear weapons program.

Mr. WELCH: It's up to other nations how they look at that as a model or not. We think it does represent, of course, the best of the alternatives, which is people not pursue these weapons. But it's the sovereign right of every country to make a mistake, like in the case of North Korea and Iran, and we hope that they would correct it.

KELEMEN: He wasn't too optimistic on that front, but Welch said he is confident that Libyan Leader Momar Khadafi will honor commitments not to pursue nuclear weapons and to continue cooperating in counter terrorism efforts.

While U.S. officials put a long history of bad relations with Khadafi behind them today, the Bush Administration took aim at one of its new foes, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. State Department Spokesman John McCormick says Venezuela has been added to a list of countries that fail to support counter-terrorism efforts.

Mr. JOHN McCORMICK (U.S. State Department): It's part of an assessment of whether or not a country is cooperating with the United States in fighting terrorism. And in this case, the answer came back no.

KELEMEN: That means the U.S. will bar arms exports to the Chavez Government. McCormick complained about Venezuela's relations with Iran and Cuba and accused Venezuela of supporting rebels in neighboring Colombia, a charge Venezuela denies.

Richard Feinberg, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, says today's announcement marks a risky approach by the Bush administration toward a key oil supplier.

Mr. RICHARD FEINBERG (University of California, San Diego): Until now the administration has generally been restrained in the face of Chavez's purposeful provocations and constant name calling. However to impose sanctions simply plays into his own hands, into Chavez's hands. It serves to justify his incessant claims that the United States is intent on destabilizing his government.

KELEMEN: Chavez has already dismissed the sanctions saying they don't matter at all. And he referred to the U.S. as an irrational empire. Ironically, he's expected to visit Tripoli this week to meet with the Libyan leader who found himself back in America's good graces today.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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