Awkward photo? There may be more to come as Colonel Gaddafi visits Rome
- The Guardian, Thursday 11 June 2009
One of them likes to call himself an "emancipator of women". The other likes women to call him "papi". So when two of the world's most flamboyant and eccentric politicians – the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi – met yesterday in Rome, women figured large.
The Libyan leader was accompanied by his all-female, 40-strong bodyguard squad, its members dressed in khaki uniforms and red berets. And the schedule for his controversial first visit to Italy included, at his own request, a meeting tomorrow with large numbers of Italian women. Very large numbers.
The plan was for "only" 700. But officials said yesterday that such was the colonel's drawing power the event had had to be moved to a concert hall with a capacity for 1,000.
Berlusconi has had more than a little trouble lately with embarrassing photos. So it must have been with a sinking feeling that he watched the Libyan leader descend the aircraft steps with another one pinned to his chest.
The photograph Gaddafi wore to several of the ceremonies on the opening day of his visit did not show young women in underwear by Berlusconi's poolside, let alone a former Czech prime minister in the altogether. But it was discomforting for his hosts all the same: it showed the Libyan resistance leader, Omar Mukhtar, the "Lion of the Desert", on the day before he was hanged by Italian colonialists in 1931.
Gaddafi flew in with a 300-strong retinue, on three Airbuses. As ever, he brought with him a giant Bedouin tent, which was erected in a Rome park.
Security for his visit was tight. But that is partly because, while Gaddafi may have bones to pick with Italy, some Italians have bones to pick with him.
Officially yesterday it was all smiles as the colonel praised Italy for having "turned a page on the past". Relations have improved since Berlusconi's government agreed last year to pay $5bn (about £3bn) reparations for Italy's colonial rule. Italy, Gaddafi said, had "apologised, and that is what allowed me to be able to come here today". But not everyone is happy about the visit. Gaddafi is set to encounter protests over a deal that allows Italian patrols to return would-be migrants, including asylum seekers, to Libyan ports. Yesterday he dismissed claims that the deal prevented asylum seekers from applying for protection, in a way that visibly disconcerted his host, normally a champion of political incorrectness.
"This is one of the lies that is put about," the colonel declared at a joint press conference after his talks with Berlusconi. "The Africans do not have problems of political asylum. People who live in the bush, and often in the desert, don't have political problems. They don't have oppositions or majorities or elections."
The Libyan leader, who is also chairman of the African Union, went on: These are things that only people who live in cities know. [Other Africans] don't even have an identity. And I don't mean a political identify; they don't even have a personal identity. They come out of the bush and they say: 'In the north, there's money, there's wealth' – and so they go to Libya, and from there to Europe."
According to the UN, an unusually high proportion of the migrants who cross from Libya are asylum seekers fleeing wars and disorder. But Gaddafi was having none of it. "Please, don't take seriously this business about political asylum. The idea they are all asylum seekers makes you laugh sometimes."