Possible Gaddafi Visit Stirs N.J. Town

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi often brings a Bedouin tent along on his foreign trips, and he has pitched one in Cairo, in Rome and next to the Elysee Palace in Paris. But reports that he is planning to set up camp in suburban Englewood, N.J., next month have prompted outrage from U.S. lawmakers and a diplomatic scramble in Washington.

Rep. Steven R. Rothman (D-N.J.), whose district includes Englewood, said Tuesday that he had taken the matter to the State Department and the White House and that they had "strongly urged the Libyan government to have Mr. Gaddafi remain only in New York City" when he visits to address the U.N. General Assembly.

The topic dominated the daily State Department news briefing, with spokesman Ian Kelly saying officials are reaching out to members of Congress and local authorities about the tent. "We're also talking to the Libyans to highlight the concerns that we have and the very raw sensibilities or sensitivities of the families who live in that area," Kelly said.

After decades of animosity, oil-rich Libya and the United States have normalized ties in recent years, as Gaddafi's government renounced support for terrorists and dismantled its nuclear program. Gaddafi's son Mutassim met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in April as part of an effort to further boost relations.

But American officials were infuriated by the joyful homecoming celebration in Libya last week for the convicted bomber in the attack on Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. They have warned that relations will suffer if the bomber, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, who was released from a Scottish prison, continues to be lionized by his government. Thirty-eight of the 270 victims of the attack lived in New Jersey.

Gaddafi's planned visit next month would be his first to the United States since becoming Libya's leader in 1969. He had initially asked if he could pitch his tent in New York's Central Park during the U.N. session, but "we said no," said Jason Post, a spokesman for New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I).

After reports in local newspapers that the Arab ruler would instead set up the tent on the grounds of a house owned by Libya's U.N. mission in Englewood, a town of 29,000 about 12 miles from Manhattan, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) wrote to Clinton on Monday asking that Gaddafi's visa restrict him to the area around the U.N. headquarters.

Rothman said the Libyans bought the Englewood house in 1982, when he was mayor of the town. At the time, the State Department sent the Libyan government a letter saying the residence was to be used only by the Libyan U.N. ambassador's family and not by Gaddafi, Rothman said.

The congressman said he emphasized to federal officials that those restrictions "should not be waived under any circumstances." His objections stem partly from concerns about local residents' security and partly from "Gaddafi's well-deserved reputation as a murderous dictator who had American blood on his hands," he said.

Kelly, the State Department spokesman, said Tuesday that the Libyan government had not yet decided where Gaddafi would stay.

A Libyan Embassy spokeswoman, Nicole DiCocco, told the Associated Press that Gaddafi's tent might be set up in Englewood, but only for social events, not sleeping. Reached Tuesday by The Washington Post, however, DiCocco referred calls to a public relations firm. A representative there, Molly Conroy, declined to comment.

An Orthodox rabbi who lives next to the Libyan estate said he plans to gather local residents at his home Sunday for a protest against the possible Gaddafi visit.

"Gaddafi has shown his true colors," Shmuley Boteach said. "He has welcomed al-Megrahi as an icon, when this is a cowardly mass murderer."

Megrahi, who has terminal prostate cancer, was freed by Scottish authorities last week on compassionate grounds after serving eight years of a 27-year sentence.

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