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Libya's Gadhafi On European Come-Back Tour

Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi took a giant stride toward international respectability Monday, arriving for a visit to France likely to conclude with deals worth millions, but drawing protests - including from a government minister.

The visit signals a fresh start for the flamboyant leader, long known as the champion of armed struggle and a sponsor of state terrorism.

Meanwhile, officials said Monday that the Libyan leader would travel to Spain immediately after his trip to France, making this a two-stop European return tour.

President Nicolas Sarkozy - the first Western leader to extend an invitation to Gadhafi since his falling-out with the West in the 1980s - looks to keep France in the running for hefty contracts in oil-rich Libya, widely seen as a new El Dorado.

However, Sarkozy also wants to send a signal to countries like Iran, in a standoff over its disputed nuclear program, that benefits await those who abide by international rules.

A deal for a civilian nuclear reactor for Libya is expected. It would be part of a "pact of trust" laid out last week in Algeria by Sarkozy, who has made bold symbolism his leadership style.

"It is a risk, but we are keeping our eyes open," Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner wrote of the visit in Monday's edition of the daily La Croix.

Gadhafi last visited France in 1973. He took his first step toward ending years as an outcast in a meeting with European Union officials in Brussels in 2004, a year after announcing he was dismantling Libya's clandestine nuclear weapons program.

The Libyan leader's visit to France - a six-day stay - falls on International Human Rights Day, a dark irony for some.

Human Rights Minister Rama Yade expressed disgust with the "scandalously strong" symbolism of the chosen date.

"It would be indecent, in any case, that this visit be summed up with the signing of contracts," she said in an interview published Monday in the daily Le Parisien. For France to avoid "the kiss of death," it must ensure respect for human rights in Libya, she said.

"Col. Gadhafi must understand that our country is not a doormat."

Yade's boss, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, defended the visit, calling it a way to "return to normal relations" Libya.

The trip "will, I hope, allow us to highlight this country's return to the international community," Kouchner told France Inter radio.

Gadhafi's capricious habits complicated the official choreography of the visit. First planned as a three-day stay, the Libyan leader doubled his time in Paris. No complete agenda was available.

Sarkozy was to hold talks twice with Gadhafi and have dinner with him Monday night. Gadhafi was to maintain his Bedouin tradition in the City of Light and pitch his tent in the elegant garden of the official guest residence, but sleep indoors.

Presidential spokesman David Martinon excluded tent diplomacy between Sarkozy and Gadhafi, saying talks would be held in the ornate Elysee Palace of the French presidency.

Extravagance was on the agenda with a $4.4 billion deal to buy a fleet of Airbus passenger jets and possible defense contracts, Gadhafi's son, Seif el-Islam Gadhafi, said in an interview Friday with the daily Le Figaro.

But most symbolic for Libya's new status is France's plan to sell a civilian nuclear reactor, expected to be used in part to desalinize water. Last week, France signed a nuclear cooperation accord with Algeria, Libya's neighbor in North Africa. There, he spelled out his view that sharing civilian nuclear technology with Muslim nations "will be one of the foundations of a pact of trust" the West must conclude with Muslim nations.

Gadhafi's official visit here is a payback with personal overtones. It was seeded by his summer decision to free six Bulgarian medics who had spent eight years in Libyan jails on grounds that they had contaminated more than 400 children with the AIDS virus - the final obstacle to normalizing ties with the pariah state.

The six were released after mediation by the EU and Cecilia Sarkozy, the wife of Sarkozy at the time, who negotiated with Gadhafi. Sarkozy then traveled to Libya. The Sarkozy couple has since divorced.

Libya set a course to return to the international fold - and undo U.N. sanctions - with its 2003 decision to dismantle its clandestine nuclear arms program. The same year it paid $2.7 billion to families of the victims of the 1998 Pan Am bombing, then agreed to pay $170 million in compensation to the families of the 170 victims of the 1989 bombing of a French UTA passenger jet.

Meanwhile, officials said Monday that Gadhafi will make a four-day trip to Spain during which he will meet King Juan Carlos and Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Gadhafi is scheduled to arrive in Madrid on Saturday following his five-day visit to France. News reports said the first two days of the visit to Spain would be private and he is likely to tour southern the Andalusian cities of Cordoba and Granada, which were centers of power during seven centuries of Moorish Islamic rule in Spain.

A Spanish government spokesman said the official part of the visit would begin Dec. 17, but final details on when Gadhafi would meet the king and Zapatero had yet to be finalized.

Gadhafi visited Spain in 1984, when he met with then-premier Felipe Gonzalez.

In 2003 Gonzalez's successor, conservative Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, traveled to Tripoli for talks about Iraq and lifting sanctions against Libya.

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