Libya slapped a trade embargo on Switzerland yesterday and demanded an apology for caustic US comments about Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s call for a jihad, or armed struggle, against the European state.
The announcements, reported by the state news agency Jana, marked an escalation of a dispute between Libya and Switzerland and showed the sensitivity of Tripoli’s ties with the West more than six years after its decision to abandon weapons of mass destruction led to a rapprochement with the United States.
Libya summoned a US diplomat to warn that ties would suffer if Washington did not apologize for a US official’s dismissive comments about Gaddafi, leading to a US effort to calm the dispute that fell short of an outright apology.
US energy companies including Exxon Mobil, Occidental and Hess have invested heavily in Libya, home to Africa’s largest proven oil reserves, since the country emerged from decades of international isolation.
Libya’s spat with Switzerland began in July 2008 when police in Geneva arrested Gaddafi’s son, Hannibal, on charges later dropped of mistreating two domestic employees.
Gaddafi’s son was released shortly after his arrest, but Libya cut oil supplies to Switzerland, withdrew billions of dollars from Swiss bank accounts and arrested two Swiss businessmen working in the North African country.
On February 25, Gaddafi called for a “jihad” against Switzerland, branding it an infidel state that was destroying mosques, an apparent reference to a Swiss referendum in favor of banning the construction of minarets.
“Any Muslim in any part of the world who works with Switzerland is an apostate, is against (the Prophet) Mohammad, God and the Koran,” Gaddafi said at the time.
In a statement reported by Jana yesterday, the Libyan government said that in response to Gaddafi’s call it had “decided on an economic and trade embargo of the Swiss state involving the public and private sectors.”
The statement said Libya would find alternatives for its imports of Swiss medicine, medical supplies and equipment and it suggested Libya had scrapped “electricity projects and other” activities by unspecified Swiss firms.
A spokesperson for the Swiss foreign ministry declined to comment on the Libyan move.
Swiss exports to Libya totalled 156.2 million Swiss francs last year, according to official Swiss figures, while Switzerland imported goods worth 717.6 million francs from Libya, mostly crude oil.
In 2009, Libya supplied some 30 % of all Swiss oil imports.
The Libyan-Swiss dispute has since drawn in the US State Department, which last week appeared to criticize Gaddafi.
Asked about the Libyan leader’s “jihad” comment, State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley responded dismissively on February 26, drawing a parallel to Gaddafi’s one hour and 35 minute address to the United Nations last year.
“It just brought me back to a day in September, one of the more memorable sessions of the UN General Assembly that I can recall lots of words and lots of papers flying all over the place, not necessarily a lot of sense,” Crowley said.
The Libyan Foreign Ministry said the remarks were ill informed and warned that if no apology was forthcoming, “that would have a negative impact on political and economic relations,” Jana reported.
Yesterday, the State Department spokesperson sought to calm the dispute but avoided making a direct apology.
“I made an off-hand comment last Friday regarding statements from Libya. It was not intended to be a personal attack,” Crowley told reporters.
“That said, a call for jihad against any country or individual has the potential to harm and is not something the United States takes lightly,” he said, adding that Washington reserved the right to comment on the actions of other nations.
Decades of strained US-Libyan relations began to improve with Tripoli’s move in December 2003 to abandon the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. The United States restored diplomatic ties and dropped a trade embargo in 2004.
US aircraft bombed Tripoli in 1986 after Washington blamed Libya for a bomb attack on a West Berlin discotheque, one of several low points in relations between Libya and the United States since Gaddafi came to power in 1969.