Italy Pays Reparations to Libya

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Livio Anticoli / Reuters

Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi shakes hands with Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi during their meeting in Benghazi

One of the perks of one-man rule is picking your national holidays. Libya's Col. Muammar Gaddafi has invented a few fêtes for his North African nation since seizing power in a 1969 coup. Three years ago, during stalled negotiations with Italy over reparations for Rome's colonial rule in Libya, he added another: Oct. 7 became "Vendetta Against Italians Day."

Now, in an unprecedented act of contrition by a former European colonial power, Italy has formally apologized for its past injustices during its 30-year reign in Libya early last century, and agreed to pay $5 billion in reparations to Tripoli. Gaddafi promptly declared Aug 30 — the day the deal was inked in — Libyan-Italian Friendship Day.

Perhaps it should be called "Silvio Day." Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Gaddafi, who share a certain mix of both durability and unpredictability, signed the deal under one of Gaddafi's trademark desert tents in the coastal city of Benghazi, trading jokes and each sharing pictures of their grandchildren.

Berlusconi insists that Libya has inched back into the international community, and that the hefty dollar figure includes a large portion in investment projects that will benefit Italian companies, including a long planned major highway to link Algeria to Tunisia and Egypt. Gaddafi also announced that Italy will get preferential deals on his country's oil and gas reserves, and threw in the return of an ancient Venus statue taken to Rome during colonial times as a sign of goodwill.

Perhaps more crucially for voters at home, Berlusconi received a written assurance from Gaddafi that his country will do more to stem the tide of illegal immigrants crossing the Mediterranean from Libyan shores, most of whom wash up on Italy's shores.

But not everyone was impressed. "Gaddafi is a dictator," wrote Romano Bracalini in the L'Opinione daily. "He's strengthened politically and can claim victory. This is not a proud day for the Italian Republic."

The agreement also sets an interesting new precedent. Italy also spent time in Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia, which may now demand similar compensation.

Former colonies of other European powers may have reason to study Libya's deal. Algerian newspaper Liberte', for instance, called on French President Nicolas Sarkozy to "take heed of the Italian example." The paper L'Expression added that "genocide, torture and crimes against humanity most definitely existed in Algeria. They were the work of colonial France and its military contingent, and lasted 132 years." Le Potential, a daily in Congo, sent a similar message to the Belgium government that once reigned in that country.

Libya's deal with Italy is part of its ongoing effort to reconcile with the West. In July, it reached a final compensation deal with the families of the 270 victims of the 1988 bombing of a U.S. airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, which was blamed on Gaddafi's regime. This deal appears to have led to full normalization of diplomatic relations with Washington and an expected visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice later this week. Condi Day anyone?