Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi began his first visit to Italy today with a warm embrace from prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, evidence of better ties between the energy-rich desert nation and its former colonial ruler.
Gaddafi's four-day visit is packed with speeches, including the rare honour of addressing the Italian Senate, and an appearance at Rome's centuries-old Sapienza University. He also agreed to meet some of the 20,000 Italians he kicked out in 1970 to punish Rome for its 1911-1941 colonisation.
Human Rights Watch attacked the visit, saying it "celebrates a dirty deal" reached recently in which Italy sends back to Libya illegal immigrants rescued at sea who set sail in smugglers' boats from Libyan shores.
An hour late, Gaddafi stepped off the Libyan plane wearing full dress military uniform, followed down the steps by some of his 300-member entourage, including the elderly son of a Libyan national hero who was executed by colonial authorities for leading a guerrilla war against the Italians in the 1920s and 1930s.
Gaddafi helped the white-robed Mohammed Omar al-Mukhtar, son of Omar al-Mukhtar, off the plane. The Libyan leader wore pinned to his uniform a faded black-and-white photo of the late hero chained by his Italian captors.
Berlusconi, squinting in the sun, and Gaddafi, his eyes behind big sunglasses, exchanged an embrace and smiles. At one point, Berlusconi gestured to his own neck, apparently indicating a stiff neck that the Italian leader reportedly has been suffering of late.
Some Italian opposition politicians protested at the visit. "It's shameful to open up the hall of the Senate to someone who doesn't know what human rights are," said Stefano Pedica, a senator from the Italy of Values party.
Berlusconi seems keen to improve relations with Libya, which is rich in oil and natural gas, and has invited Gaddafi to return to Italy next month for the Group of Eight summit.