, ROME, Jun 11 – Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi was set to address Italy’s Senate amid controversy after he kicked off a landmark visit to his country’s former colonial master hailing a new era in ties.
After the Italian opposition vowed to shun his speech to the upper house of parliament in protest at his policies, parliamentary group leaders agreed to move the event from the main chamber to the Senate’s lesser Sala Zuccari.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi accorded a red-carpet welcome to Gadaffi and his 200-strong entourage at Rome’s Ciampino airport at the start of the three-day visit Wednesday to consolidate a friendship treaty signed last year.
Italy and Libya have a "real and deep friendship… based on a common position on international issues and tight cooperation on economic matters," Berlusconi said at a joint press conference with Gaddafi.
The Libyan leader praised Berlusconi for his "bravery in taking this historic decision to apologise to the Libyan people" for Rome’s 1911-47 military occupation and colonisation of Libya.
He said Libyan "martyrs were attacked by (Italy’s wartime dictator Benito) Mussolini just for defending their territory. Many crimes were committed during this era, with thousands deported."
The August 2008 treaty was "not a matter of accounts or dollars but of principles," Kadhafi said, adding: "Let’s hope other colonial states will follow Italy’s example."
Earlier on Wednesday after meeting President Giorgio Napolitano, the leader of the oil-rich north African state said: "The page on the past has been turned and a new page of friendship has opened."
The visit seals a major rapprochement symbolised by the treaty under which Italy will pay five billion dollars (3.5 billion euros) in compensation for the colonial period over the next 25 years.
While "no compensation is possible for what colonial Italy did to the Libyan people, (the treaty) is the sign that Italy condemns colonialism (and) has apologised for what happened, and that is what allowed me to come here today," said Kadhafi, wearing dark glasses.
Courting controversy, on his arrival Gaddafi sported on the front of his military uniform a photograph of Omar Al-Mokhtar, a Libyan resistance leader during the colonial era.
The picture showed Mokhtar at the time of his arrest in 1931 under Mussolini’s fascist regime.
Gaddafi’s visit comes amid criticism of Italy’s decision to return to Libya some 500 would-be immigrants caught in international waters, under a new policy introduced last month.
Human Rights Watch on Wednesday slammed the visit, saying it "celebrates a dirty deal" under which the two countries "run roughshod over refugee and migrant rights."
"It looks less like friendship and more like a dirty deal to enable Italy to dump migrants and asylum seekers on Libya and evade its obligations," the New York-based rights group said in a statement.
Rome has worked to improve its relations with Tripoli in recent years in a bid to rein in a massive influx of migrants, many of whom come by boat from Libya across the Mediterranean.
The European refugee agency noted last week that Libya is the only African country that is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, does not have any asylum procedures and often indefinitely detains people seeking protection.
Several hundred people protested at human rights violations in Libya in a central Rome square on Wednesday afternoon.
Gaddafi, the Arab world’s longest serving leader who has been in power since 1969, will also attend next month’s Group of Eight summit in Italy as the rotating president of the African Union.
The Libyan strongman has gradually returned to the international fold since abandoning ambitions to build weapons of mass destruction in 2003.