Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Meet With Libyan Envoy as Relations Continue to Thaw

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sees Libya's top diplomat here this week as preparations continue on her plans for a historic visit to Libya this year, a senior U.S. official said Tuesday.

Rice is to meet Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel-Rahman Shalqam on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly session on Wednesday afternoon amid a sea change in U.S. relations with the North African nation that was once considered a pariah, the official said.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting has not yet been announced.

Although the session will not be the first for Rice and Shalqam — they have seen each other in person at least twice before — it follows a recent flurry of diplomatic activity between the two countries and comes as both look ahead to Rice traveling to Tripoli by the end of the year.

Last month, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, David Welch, went to Tripoli to discuss arrangements for the trip, which had been tentatively set for October but may now slip by a month or two given Rice's hectic schedule and stepped up Mideast peace efforts.

If and when Rice goes to Libya, she will be the first secretary of state to visit the country since John Foster Dulles in 1953.

Welch arrived shortly after Libya released six Bulgarian medical workers who had been imprisoned for more than eight years despite strong international objections for allegedly infecting Libyan children with the AIDS virus.

The release cleared one of the last remaining hurdles for a full restoration of U.S.-Libya diplomatic ties, which were broken in 1980.

Washington is still pressing Tripoli to complete compensation payments to victims of the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland and resolve similar issues in the 1986 bombing of a Berlin disco.

The U.S. official said Rice would underscore the importance of dealing with those matters in her meeting with Shalqam.

Still, relations have improved substantially since Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi agreed to abandon his weapons of mass destruction programs in 2003. Along with the Lockerbie settlement, that led to Libya's removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Those steps also removed U.S., U.N. and European sanctions on Tripoli.

The United States and Libya have since reopened embassies in their respective capitals and President Bush has nominated a veteran diplomat to serve as the new American ambassador in Libya.

The nomination, however, has met resistance from some members of Congress. They vow to block it until Libya completes the Lockerbie restitution payments settles claims from the disco bombing in which several U.S. servicemen were killed.