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Qaddafi's new role: peacemaker

Critics accuse him of meddling in other nations, but the Africanleaders he helps pay him homage.

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Mention "peacemaker," and most people will name South Africa's Nelson Mandela, Israel's Yitzhak Rabin, or Jordan's King Hussein, - even former US President Jimmy Carter.

But Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who has been accused for years by America of sponsoring terrorism - a peacemaker?

In Africa, a continent riven with conflict, Mr. Qaddafi has been playing exactly that role - bolstering his aim to become a regional leader. Decades of support for African liberation and rebel groups has given Libya a strong influence in many African nations. Qaddafi appears to be orchestrating a makeover designed to reestablish Libya as a regional power and dispel its "bad boy" image in the West.

"It is not only cosmetic: When Qaddafi is involved in the peace processes in Congo or Eritrea, they welcome him, they don't reject him," says a Western diplomat here. "The Africans take [Qaddafi] in a very serious way, and want to be seen to be close to him, while in the West they still think of the old images [that link Libya to terrorism]. They are not aware of the changes of the last 1-1/2 years."

Stunned by what he saw as weak support from the Arab world during years of UN-imposed isolation, Qaddafi has recently turned to Africa.

Analysts say there are many reasons the phrase "Qaddafi the peacemaker" is fitting here in Africa, though there is also skepticism from Libya's Western-leaning neighbors Egypt and Tunisia, among others.

The eccentric Libyan leader brought Congo's Laurent Kabila and Uganda's Yoweri Museveni together last December and again in May. Cease-fires were announced both times. He has attempted to mediate in the Sudanese civil war. And despite caution from rebels, President Omar al-Bashir last month said that "Libya was the only country that has offered a beneficial initiative."

Qaddafi also has worked to bring Ethiopian and Eritrean leaders to the table - he once backed both presidents' guerrilla campaigns - and has sought to mediate in Sierra Leone, where he has good relations with both rebel chief Foday Sankoh and President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

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