Mandela in Diplomatic Desert Storm

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TRIPOLI: Nelson Mandela is no ingrate, and he went to extraordinary lengths to prove it Wednesday by becoming the most important head of state to visit Colonel Gaddhafi in four years.

Although promising to mediate in the dispute over Lockerbie, Mandela's principal purpose was to thank the Libyan leader for supporting South Africa's liberation struggle. Mandela curtly dismissed U.S. criticism of his visit, saying that Gaddhafi had stood by victims of apartheid at a time when Washington was "helping the enemy."

Says TIME South Africa correspondent Peter Hawthorne: "Mandela is saying, 'This is a guy who helped us out when times were bad and there's no reason why we shouldn't go visit him.' At the same time, hes emphasizing South Africa's independence from Washington on matters of foreign policy."

Still, Mandela's spin doctors must be relieved that their boss was never able to visit his other erstwhile supporters men such as Honecker and Ceaucescu.