Gaddafi says Sarkozy didn't mention rights

PARIS - Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi said on Tuesday French President Nicolas Sarkozy did not bring up human rights when they met, contradicting Sarkozy's account and fuelling criticism of the French leader over Gaddafi's visit.

Gaddafi is visiting France for the first time in 34 years, seeking to bolster his international standing after decades as an outcast of the West.

His visit, during which a series of deals with French firms have been signed, has angered the opposition and rights groups, who accuse Sarkozy of sacrificing principles to boost exports.

Sarkozy has retorted that he told Gaddafi at a meeting on Monday that he should do more to improve the human rights situation in Libya, but Gaddafi gave a different account.

"First of all, President Sarkozy and I did not discuss these subjects. We are quite close friends. We cooperate," Gaddafi said in an extract of an interview on France 2 television due to be aired on Tuesday evening.

Gaddafi dined at Sarkozy's official residence on Monday, after which both leaders oversaw the signing of contracts and framework agreements, including one on entering exclusive talks on the purchase of arms from France.

Sarkozy's office said on Monday the deals to be signed with Libya totalled more than 10 billion euros (7.2 billion pounds), but sources said several of the deals were still being negotiated.

An official at Sarkozy's office said Libya had expressed a "strong intention" to buy 14 Dassault Aviation-made Rafale fighter jets, as well as 35 helicopters, six ships, armoured vehicles and air defence radar.

Such a deal would be the first foreign order of Rafales since the jet went on the market eight years ago. The official said the defence hardware deal was worth some 4.5 billion euros.

RIGHTS CRITICISM

Sarkozy's own junior minister for human rights has said Paris should not do business with Gaddafi without seeking guarantees on the rights situation in Libya.

"Quiet, we're selling," left-wing daily Liberation said in a front-page headline over a picture of Rama Yade, the minister who voiced concern at Gaddafi's visit.

The opposition stepped up attacks even before Gaddafi's comments were broadcast.

"You want to tell me that to make up for the (French trade deficit) we should bow down before such and such? Why not the North Korean president if he bought our contracts?" Francois Hollande, leader of the opposition Socialists, told RTL radio.

Tripoli's ties with the West have improved since it scrapped a weapons of mass destruction programme in 2003, agreed payment for families of victims of bombings of U.S. and French airliners, and released six detained foreign medics in July.

Libya is opening up to Western investment in oil and infrastructure, and France is not the first major power to seek to do business there. But foreign visits by Gaddafi are rare, and his visit has stirred unease in France.

An IFOP poll for magazine Paris Match released on Monday found 61 percent of respondents did not approve of the visit.

But Sarkozy remained defiant.

"If some people don't like me bringing back contracts for French factories, it must be those people who don't want factories in France," he said in a speech in eastern France.

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