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U.S. Rebuffed Recent Secret Libya Overtures : Contacts Did Not Address ‘Real Issue’ of Kadafi Support for Terrorism, American Officials Say

Times Staff Writer

During the past week, according to American officials, representatives of the Libyan government have initiated secret overtures to the Reagan Administration in what intermediaries describe as an attempt to prevent exactly what happened Wednesday: a military confrontation.

The last contact came less than 24 hours before two U.S. F-14 Tomcats shot down two Libyan MIG-23 fighters over the Mediterranean.

Ranking U.S. officials contend, however, that the approaches were not taken seriously because they did not deal with the key U.S. complaint: Libya’s involvement in and support for international terrorism.

“I have not seen anything passed through intermediaries from the Libyan side that addressed the real issues,” said a leading Administration official who declined to be identified.

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“We’re involved in Libyan maneuvering,” he said. “They’re trying to convince other audiences, especially in Europe, that they’re innocent and being maligned and that this is a demonstration of their good faith.”

There was no evidence, however, that Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi had tried to publicize his overtures to the United States. And some private American analysts contended that Kadafi may, for the first time in 10 years, actually have been serious in trying to defuse the growing tension between the two nations.

They argued that President Reagan appeared to be baiting Kadafi to engage the U.S. forces that regularly patrol the Mediterranean Sea near Libya. The Defense Department said the F-14s that downed the Libyan jets were part of a routine patrol from the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy.

A new round of contacts between the United States and Libya began late last summer, according to U.S. officials.

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“There have been lots of feelers over the last few months,” said another Reagan Administration source who asked not to be identified. Kadafi’s change of heart began around August or September, when he began changing his way of doing things at home and internationally.

“He began releasing political prisoners,” the source said. “He let people go overseas and buy things. He acknowledged that the revolutionary committees were not working and should be disbanded. He freed up on the economy.

“He also began to send new signals to us and others,” this official said.

In this category was the release last week, allegedly with Kadafi’s assistance, of two French girls who had been held hostage for about a year along with their mother and five Belgians by the Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal and his group, the Revolutionary Council of Fatah.

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“I regret that their mother and the other hostages were not also released,” the official Libyan news agency Jana quoted Kadafi as saying.

But the United States remained unmoved “because Kadafi never stopped supporting terrorism,” the U.S official said. “We let him know that we’re not going to dance unless he plays the right tune. The people we find objectionable are still Libyan-based or -supported, and until that changes, we’re not going to deal.”

Overtures Seen as Sham

Libya’s continued work on chemical weapons further convinced the Reagan Administration that, as was the case with a host of other signals from Libya over the past decade, the latest overtures were only a sham.

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“I’ve been totally unimpressed,” said another Reagan Administration official. “They were nothing but cynical overtures, especially in light of the timing. They have the sole purpose of throwing us off balance.

“It’s just like the overtures from Cuba. Whatever they say, nothing has really changed.”

Added a State Department source: “We think Libya was feeling the heat and decided to do everything it could to end American pressure.”

It was only to that end, this source said, that Kadafi offered to allow a single inspection of the chemical plant that Washington has labeled a potential source of poison gas. And it was only for that purpose, he said, that Kadafi dispatched intermediaries to make contacts with the U.S. government.

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One of the intermediaries during the 24 hours before Wednesday’s military action over the Mediterranean said that the overture went beyond the dispute over the chemical plant. The approach, said this intermediary, a private U.S. citizen who had been contacted by Libyan agents, was framed in the context of what it would take to normalize relations between Washington and Tripoli.

But while Administration officials remained unmoved by Libya’s overtures, some leading former Pentagon officials and military analysts charged that the Administration provoked Wednesday’s conflict over the Mediterranean as part of a scheme to take out the alleged chemical weapons factory before Reagan leaves office Jan. 20.

“It seems again that we want to pick a fight with the Libyans and that Reagan will go out fighting,” said retired Adm. Gene LaRocque of the Center for Defense Information. “We’re setting it all up. We’ve been trying to create the environment that will justify our taking out the chemical plant.

“The Libyans were out there trying to defend their country, which is their right,” LaRocque said. “It would even be prudent for them to be flying out there.”

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LaRocque, who served four tours of duty in the Mediterranean, also said that Libya is guilty so far of nothing that the United States is not also doing.

“There is nothing illegal about building a chemical weapons plant,” he insisted. “We built one in the U.S. and opened it in Arkansas in 1987. It’s only illegal to use chemical weapons, not to have them.”

Henry Shuler, a fellow at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies who recently visited Libya and interviewed Kadafi, said that the pilots of Libya’s two doomed MIGs probably felt they were acting in self-defense.

“After all, President Reagan had said we might take out the chemical weapons plant,” Shuler told the “MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour” on PBS. “Libya reacted as any nation would. It’s possible they sent up the planes to determine the intention of the U.S. planes.”

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A recently retired naval officer who has served in the Mediterranean said that Libya had become an easy target for American military might.

“I fear we are baiting them,” said this official, who asked not to be identified. “Nothing we do there will be debated.”

A Reagan Administration official contended, however, that “no one has given the U.S. the go-ahead to hit Libya. The hype over the chemical plant has now taken on a life of its own.

“We may have stirred up something without knowing how to control or end it. Our aim was only to apply pressure.”

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