On a turbulent maiden visit to the European Union, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi appealed to the West yesterday to seize his offer of peace and not force his country back to its bad old days of the gun and the bomb.

Cheered on by African drummers and chanting supporters who outnumbered human rights protesters, Col. Gaddafi took another step towards international respectability with talks at European Commission headquarters on his first visit to Europe since 1989.

European Commission President Romano Prodi hailed Libya's decision to break with its violent past and renounce weapons of mass destruction, and said the EU executive was committed to integrating Tripoli into its Euro-Mediterranean dialogue.

But the ageing Arab radical showed flashes of his firebrand style in a 45-minute harangue to a joint news conference, at which questions were barred, under the watchful eye of four of his women bodyguards in blue camouflage uniforms on the podium.

"I hope that we shall not be prompted or obliged by any evil to go back or to look backwards," Col. Gaddafi said, after defending his past support for militant Third World "freedom fighters".

"We do hope that we shall not be obliged or forced one day to go back to those days when we bomb our cars or put explosive belts around our beds and around our women so that we will not be searched and not be harassed in our bedrooms and in our homes, as is taking place now in Iraq and in Palestine."

He did not directly ask to join the EU's so-called Barcelona process, a trade, aid and culture pact with 11 south and east Mediterranean neighbours, including Israel. But EU officials said they expected a formal application during his two-day stay.

Vaunting his five-year dialogue with Col. Gaddafi dating back to a time when the Libyan leader was still an international pariah, Mr Prodi broke with protocol to welcome Col. Gaddafi at the airport.

The EU chief did not mention human rights or democracy at their joint media appearance but praised Libya's pledges to promote peace, stability and development in its region.

Mr Prodi said he was sure Libya would settle "open issues" with Germany and EU candidate Bulgaria in the next few weeks.

"I am confident that, on this basis, the enlarged EU will stand ready to work with Libya for the common good in the Mediterranean and beyond," the former Italian premier said.

Germany wants compensation for a 1986 bombing of a Berlin discotheque used by US soldiers. Sofia wants freedom for six Bulgarian medics detained since 1999 and accused of deliberately infecting Libyan children with HIV.

In a red fez hat and a sweeping brown robe, Col. Gaddafi gave a clenched-fist salute to more than 200 singing, dancing supporters who greeted him outside Commission headquarters.

A smaller group of about 50 Libyan exiles protested nearby, chanting "Gaddafi terrorist" and holding a banner proclaiming "Gaddafi is a wolf in sheep's clothing".

The landmark trip was another reward for Libya's payment of compensation for the Lockerbie and UTA airliner bombings and its ending of nuclear, biological and chemicals weapons programmes in a rapprochement with the United States and Britain.

Col. Gaddafi will stay the night in a black Bedouin tent complete with satellite dish, pitched in the grounds of a Belgian state residence.

There was some discomfort in the Commission at Mr Prodi's effusive welcome for a leader whose 30-year rule has been marked by authoritarianism at home and erratic radicalism abroad.

In a statement timed for the visit, human rights group Amnesty International said Libya continues to jail, torture and execute political prisoners.

"The European Union has first of all to take care of the human rights issue," said Libyan protester Saeed Khaled, a former defence engineer, exiled since 1998 in Switzerland.

"Nothing has changed in the country. The region is still the same. The changes he's making are only in foreign policy."

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