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Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi waves upon his arrival in Porlamar, on Venezuela's Margarita Island, on Sept. 25, 2009. (Ariana Cubillos/AP)
Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi waves upon his arrival in Porlamar, on Venezuela's Margarita Island, on Sept. 25, 2009. (Ariana Cubillos/AP)

Harper signed off on Gadhafi stopover Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper personally approved Moammar Gadhafi's planned Canadian layover last year, even as his government was rebuking the Libyan strongman for celebrating a convicted terrorist, documents show.

The Libyan leader cancelled a planned stop in St. John's, N.L., after the Prime Minister's Office warned he would be scolded for throwing a party for a man jailed in the Lockerbie bombing. Internal emails obtained by The Canadian Press reveal that Mr. Harper himself gave Colonel Gadhafi's visit the go-ahead.

A Foreign Affairs Department official told colleagues Mr. Harper approved Col. Gadhafi's stopover more than a week before the Libyan leader was to arrive.

"The PM approved this visit last week from WSHDC [Canada's embassy in Washington, D.C.]in a telephone conversation with PMO," the Sept. 21 email says. "What was approved is a 'technical stopover for a head of state'."

The Canadian Press obtained the email and other documents under the Access to Information Act.

Dimitri Soudas, spokesman for the Prime Minister, issued a one-line statement Wednesday when asked about the email: "The government of Canada had stated at the time that the Libyan leader would do a stopover in N.L."

At the time of Col. Gadhafi's planned visit, Mr. Soudas joined an international chorus rebuking the Libyan leader for throwing a huge welcome-home party for Abdel Baset al-Megrahi.

The convicted terrorist was released from a Scottish prison in August after he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. The celebration especially outraged the relatives of the 270 victims killed in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103.

Ahead of Col. Gadhafi's visit, Mr. Soudas said the celebration for Mr. al-Megrahi "constituted an insult to all the victims who died, including Canadians."

The spokesman added that the Prime Minister planned to dispatch Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon to Newfoundland to upbraid Col. Gadhafi.

"Minister Cannon will voice Canada's strong disapproval over the hero's welcome organized for Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the man responsible for the Lockerbie terrorist bombing," Mr. Soudas said.

But finding face time with the Libyan leader was apparently a challenge.

The officer who co-ordinates security for visiting dignitaries in the RCMP's Newfoundland and Labrador division was told the St. John's airport wasn't a good meeting spot. "I understand the minister is looking to meet the VIP in the terminal building lounge," says an email from a sender whose name is blanked out.

"This would pose a problem for us as this would be in the (restricted area) or in the airport authority boardroom. ... Either choice is a problem for the arrival in the international area.

"Could we convince him to meet at the hotel or in the car? Oh boy."

That wasn't the only sticking point. An email from one Mountie to another hints at tensions between Canadian and Libyan officials over Col. Gadhafi's visit.

"There remains much distance between what we are going to provide and what the Libyans are willing to accept," the officer wrote.

"Stay tuned, as I wouldn't be shocked to hear that the visit is scrubbed. As it stands right now the leader has no place to stay, and no prospects."

Canadian officials were also in the dark over why the 34 members of Libya's advance team abruptly cancelled their hotel reservations and left St. John's. The RCMP's head of protective services ruled out tight security as a reason.

"It should be noted that the firm (and appropriate) stance of the RCMP in relation to security requirements was not identified as the reasons behind this change of heart by our Libyan friends," Bruce Kirkpatrick wrote.

It looks like hard feelings were to blame.

Col. Gadhafi, in an apparent reprisal, later ordered Libya's travel offices not to issue visas to Canadians wanting to enter the country.

Why Col. Gadhafi wanted to stop in St. John's in the first place remains a mystery.

While many transatlantic flights used to stop at the airport in Gander, Nfld., to refuel, that practice largely stopped in the 1960s with the development of longer-range passenger jets.

The Libyan leader had planned to go to Newfoundland after delivering a blustering rant at the United Nations, which unnerved many delegates with its strange allusions to "fish flu" and the Kennedy assassination.

The speech was classic Gadhafi, who is protected by a bevy of khaki-clad female bodyguards.

Col. Gadhafi seized power in a military coup 40 years ago. His support for terrorism and his strange lifestyle made him an international pariah.

Until the controversy over the Mr. al-Megrahi celebration, Col. Gadhafi had partially rehabilitated his image by renouncing terrorism and paying huge reparations over Lockerbie.

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