Returning to Libya for his second visit in a week, Nelson Mandela presented South Africa’s highest award for a foreigner to Moammar Gadhafi on Wednesday, praising the Libyan ruler as “my dear brother leader.”
The meeting, coming so quickly on the heels of the last one, prompted speculation that the South African president was trying to mediate an end to the 5-year-old U.N. sanctions against Libya.
Mandela was accompanied by foreign reporters, so his visit gave Gadhafi a platform to heap scorn upon the United States. As with his previous stop in Libya, and earlier visits to Cuba, the trip demonstrated Mandela’s willingness to risk U.S. ire in maintaining close relationships with old friends.
Libya and Cuba were among the countries that provided early backing to Mandela’s African National Congress in its struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
Libya used the gathering to lash out at Washington.
“Down, down U.S.A., the enemy of the peoples!” said one banner, in English, at the sports center where the ceremony was held in the seaside town of Zuwarah, 60 miles west of the capital, Tripoli.
The sanctions against Libya were imposed to pressure it into surrendering two Libyan suspects in the 1988 bombing of a Pan American jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people. The sanctions bar flights to and from Libya and ban arms sales to the North African nation.
Mandela, however, made no direct references to Lockerbie in his brief remarks and said he was only in Libya to present the award.
For his part, Gadhafi remained defiant. “Asking Libya to hand over its citizens to America or Britain is a silly matter that makes us laugh, especially after the price we have had to pay,” he told a news conference after the awards ceremony.
The United States and Britain have demanded that the suspects be tried in Scotland or the United States, while Libya has insisted that either Libya or a third country be the site for any proceedings.
In Washington, U.S. officials said the Clinton administration position on Pan Am flight 103 and on maintaining sanctions against Libya remain firm. They also said they were unaware of any initiative led by Mandela to mediate the issue.
At Wednesday’s ceremony, a crowd of 3,000 burst into rhythmic applause as Mandela draped a sash across Gadhafi’s chest and presented him with South Africa’s Order of Good Hope, the country’s highest honor for foreigners.