The final tough hurdle facing Libya's re-entry into the community of nations, was overcome last Tuesday, as a Palestinian doctor and five Bulgarian nurses were freed, following their eight-year ordeal in prison - three of which were spent under threat of a death sentence.

The medics had been sentenced to death in December 2005, after being convicted of infecting 426 children with HIV, while working at a hospital in the country's second largest city, Benghazi.  Fifty-six of the children have since died.   The medics maintained their innocence all along and said that they had been tortured by Libyan security forces to make them confess.  Western scientists and global health organizations contend that the infections had taken place long before the medics arrived at the hospital and that the deaths could be blamed on poor hygiene and poorly maintained equipment.

The release and subsequent return of the medics to Bulgaria were only realized after lengthy negotiations that featured EU negotiators who were accompanied by France's first lady, Cecilia Sarkozy, following her first visit to the country on July 12 to meet with Libya's autocratic leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Although a number of respected world leaders, notably South Africa's former president Nelson Mandela have used their good offices in Libya to bring about negotiated resolutions to the country's seemingly intractable disputes with the West, it is a first time that a first lady of a foreign nation has gotten involved. The latter negotiated an attractive package of concessions that includes a pledge to restore political and economic ties with the North African state, proposed access to, and simplified rules with regard to EU visas for Libyan nationals, improved EU access to Libyan goods, including its much-prized and substantive oil and natural gas reserves, as well as fish products and agricultural goods.

It also received a $461million humanitarian aid fund for the families of the sick children.  On a bilateral level, France signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Qaddaffi, aimed at the construction of a Libyan nuclear reactor for water desalination, and a framework for co-operation with regard to nuclear energy intended for civilian purposes.

This breakthrough is widely viewed as the latest attempt by Libya's strong man to shed his country's image as Africa's "mischief-maker", which it earned for its alleged ties with, and support for terrorist groups around the world, and to open a new chapter in Libya's relations with the international community, which will reflect its new policy of co-operation with the West.

Already in July 2006, the US restored full diplomatic relations with Libya, following closed-door negotiations, which had been taking place since 1999, over its alleged role in the Lockerbie bombing.  The Libyan leader was accused of allegedly planning the terrorist bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, which had killed 270 people.  Following years of defiance, while enduring international isolation and sanctions, Qaddaffi surprised the international community when he agreed to pay $2.7 billion in compensation to the families of the victims, and to send two Libyan secret service agents, who were accused of being directly implicated in the bombing, to a special court in The Netherlands in 1999.

The country continued its rapprochement towards the West, following the September 11 attacks on the US.  Faced with increased public dissatisfaction with his rule, economic collapse, increased unemployment and a similar predicament to the one that had faced Saddam Hussein in Iraq with the US invasion in March 2003, Qaddaffi capitulated to international pressure in December that year, by declaring his intentions to abandon biological, chemical and nuclear weapons research. In an unprecedented development, Libyan authorities declared their willingness to cooperate with the US officials on anti-terrorism intelligence gathering and severe its alleged longstanding ties with terrorists groups in both the region and in Southeast Asia with an aim to attract American investment into its energy sector to help jumpstart its ailing economy.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the country was shunned by the rest of the world, just as South Africa had been during the 1970s and 1980s.  With an economy that was overly dependent on oil exports (oil accounts for 55% of GDP, 97% of export earnings and 80% of government revenues) and Western mining technology, handicapped by an outdated, centralized management system and a primitive banking sector, Libya experienced the devastating effects of economic sanctions and political isolation.  As the second-largest oil exporter in Africa, second only to Nigeria, it holds approximately 36 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, or 3% of the world's known total, and more than 40 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves.  However, having produced approximately 3.3 million barrels a day during the 1970s, Libya's oil exports plummeted to a mere 1.6 million barrels a day by the 1990s, following the imposing of US economic sanctions in 1986.

As was to be expected, over the past two decades, the ripple effects were felt in all sectors of Libyan society. Much to government's dismay, the country's workforce had been increasing at an astonishing rate of 4% annually, while unemployment had climbed to 30% during the past decade -  in a country with a population of 6 million.  With 75% of the workforce effectively still employed in the public sector, government salaries stagnated until recently.  At approximately $3 000 annually, state wages are well below the purported GDP (at purchasing power parity) of $12 300 per head.

Libya's over-dependence on oil and gas exports, coupled with the lifting of economic sanctions and the normalization of relations with the West, a growing number of European and American oil companies, including US Amerada Hess, Marathon and Conoco Phillips, Greek refiner Hellenic Petroleum, France's Total, Germany's Veba have re-entered the Libyan market in recent months.  In April 2007, Russia's Tatneft and the National Oil Corporation of Libya signed an Exploration and Production-sharing Agreement regarding three large areas, covering some       16 000 square kilometers of the country.  With continued normalization of relations with the West on the cards, this North African oil exporter is expecting its oil exports to increase to 2.25 million barrels a day by 2010.  Western oil companies contend that, given the fact that only 25% of the country has been exploited for oil and gas, it is probable that Libya could be sitting on more than 100 billion barrels in oil reserves.

Inevitably, the medics' release may further strengthen the West's long-standing premise that closed-door diplomacy with this former pariah has succeeded in bringing it back into the fold of the international community.  It is expected to fuel the arguments of advocates of Western closed-door diplomacy and rapprochement with dictators around the world, that the Libyan experience could be emulated with regard to other states. These states include Syria, with the objective of persuading it to discontinue its alleged support for Islamic militant groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as North Korea and Iran. In the latter's case, negotiations would be aimed at putting pressure on it to abandon its nuclear program.  In the meantime, the North African state is looking forward to an increased flow of direct foreign investment help raise the living standards of its people, who have been waiting patiently to reap the benefits of their country's oil riches.

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