ENGLEWOOD, New Jersey – More than 200 people gathered Sunday to tell Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi he's not welcome in their suburban New Jersey community, including several who lost relatives in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Gov. Jon Corzine was among those who attended the event in Englewood, where the Libyan government has been renovating a 5-acre estate ahead of Qaddafi's first U.S. visit, scheduled for next month. Qaddafi had been expected to pitch a ceremonial Bedouin-style tent on the grounds, but his representatives announced Friday that he would remain in Manhattan where he's addressing the United Nations General Assembly, after rumors of his visit to New Jersey sparked an uproar last week.
"This is a community that's still in pain," Corzine said. "To not have him here is a victory."
Corzine called the Pan Am bombing, widely believed to be the work of Libyan intelligence, a precursor to 9/11. New Jersey and New York suffered heavily in both attacks. The Pan Am attack claimed 259 lives on the plane and 11 more on the ground, and the 97 residents of New York and New Jersey killed represent more than half of the 189 Americans on the plane.
Qaddafi celebrates his 40th year as ruler of the oil-rich North African kingdom Monday.
Kara Weipz, of Mount Laurel, N.J., said the relatives of the people al-Megrahi killed are less enthusiastic about forgiving Libya's past sins than their governments. Her 20-year-old brother, Richard Monetti, was aboard Pan Am Flight 103. Weipz wants the U.S. State Department to issue Gadhafi a restricted visa.
"He should not be welcomed to the U.S for anything, but U.N. business," Weipz said. "I don't think he should be able to go sightseeing in New York, visit New Jersey — anything."
Nicole DiCocco, spokeswoman for the Libyan embassy in Washington, D.C., declined to comment Sunday.
U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman and Englewood Mayor Michael Wildes also spoke at the rally.
"This man is directly tied to one of the most heinous acts of terror ever committed against citizens of the United States," Lautenberg said. "There was no way New Jersey would stand down."
Rothman thanked the Libyan government for acknowledging the impropriety of a Qaddafi visit to New Jersey and for changing his travel plans. Wildes was less diplomatic, vowing to arrest Gadhafi as an accomplice to murder if the Libyan leader comes to this upscale community of 28,000 people, about 12 miles north of Manhattan.
Wildes also slammed the U.S. State Department for failing to issue a restricted visa to Qaddafi, as many New Jersey leaders have requested, to bar him from the state should the Libyans go back on their word.
"You can't trust the Libyan government," Wildes said, noting Englewood is moving forward Monday with a court injunction to halt renovation work on the mansion. "We're not going to rest until we know for sure he's not coming here."
Qaddafi's visit to the UN is expected to be the culmination of a yearslong effort to repair his international image, which has included denouncing terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and compensating the families of the victims of Pan Am 103. That effort was undermined last week when the Libyans secured the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds because he's dying of cancer. A cheering crowd at the Tripoli airport greeted al-Megrahi, who was accompanied by Qaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Qaddafi.
The younger Qaddafi disputed suggestions it was a hero's welcome in an article Sunday in The New York Times, offering his sympathies to the families of the Lockerbie victims.
"From the Libyan point of view, the reception given to Mr. Megrahi was low-key," al-Islam Qaddafi wrote. "Libya has worked with Britain, the United States and other Western countries for more than five years now to defuse the tensions of earlier times."