It was the first visit by a British minister to Libya for almost 20 years, and the discussions ranged from Libya’s offer to help in the US-sponsored ‘war on terrorism’ to Tripoli’s intention to sign the international chemical weapons convention.

Speaking after the meeting – which was staged in an army surplus tent in the desert outside Sirte – O’Brien said Gaddafi had sought reassurance that Libya would not be exposed to legal action if it admitted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing.

The issue of responsibility is one of four key areas defined by the UN in which Libya’s acquiescence is necessary if the sanctions regime – suspended since 1999 – is to be lifted (see Special Report). Another of the conditions – the payment of compensation to the victims’ families – was also addressed, with Libyan Foreign Liason & International Co-operation Minster Abdul Rahman Shalgam confirming after the meeting that Libya was prepared to comply ‘as a matter of principle’.

O’Brien highlighted the different directions being taken by Libya and Iraq. ‘Libya is moving towards compliance with international law and Iraq is not.Just as Libya is making very difficult steps for it to comply with international law, I hope Saddam Hussein will comply by allowing inspectors to get into Iraq,’ he said.