Image: Cyrene
Nasser Nasser  /  AP
Seif al-Islam Gadhafi arrives for the ceremony of the declaration of a sustainable environmental region at the ancient city of Cyrene near the city of al-Bayda, northeastern Libya, Sept. 10.
updated 9/10/2007 8:42:58 PM ET 2007-09-11T00:42:58

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's son unveiled an ambitious plan Monday to protect ancient Greek ruins, conserve the country's pristine Mediterranean coastline and draw ecotourists to this former pariah state.

Seif al-Islam Gadhafi's plan is part of an attempt to dramatically change the image of Libya to an ecologically friendly tourist destination, at a time when the country is nearing its long-sought political goal: getting into the West's good graces.

The younger Gadhafi announced the project at a ceremony inside a 2,200-year-old Greek gymnasium in the ruins of the ancient city of Cyrene, among the largely untouched and unvisited antiquity sites that Libya hopes will pull in foreigners.

"Our intention is to build a complete and sustainable social, cultural, economic and environmental system in which the needs of the present allow for the needs of future generations," Gadhafi said.

Details of the plan were vague. But the intention is to make 2,046 square miles of northeastern Libya — a region known as the Green Mountain — an environmentally sustainable region, creating a national park and ecotourism opportunities while excavating and protecting the nearby ancient temples and Mediterranean coast.

The Green Mountain is a virtually unspoiled region of fertile land, gorges and Greek ruins that rival those in Greece and Turkey.

"Its time now to join developed countries and make a statement that we are also concerned about the environment and culture," Gadhafi, who is known in Libya as "The Engineer," told reporters after the ceremony.

Touted as a reformer, 36-year-old Gadhafi has increasingly been sharing his father's spotlight and reaching out to the West to soften Libya's image and return it to the international mainstream. He has no official government post, but many see him as the man most likely to take power in the North African country when his 65-year-old father steps down or dies.

After spending decades as the United States' sworn enemy, Libya is embarking on a political and economic change of heart.

It is hoping to cap its rehabilitation this year with a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who would be the first U.S. secretary of state to come to Libya since John Foster Dulles in 1953.

Its rogue state status abruptly changed in 2003 when U.N. sanctions imposed 11 years earlier were lifted after the elder Gadhafi announced he was dismantling his nuclear weapons program. That same year, Libya accepted responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pam Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and agreed to pay restitution to the families of the 270 victims. Last year, the State Department removed Libya from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

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The U.S. opened an interests section in Libya in 2004 and last year reopened its embassy for the first time since 1979, when a mob attacked and set fire to the mission.

Leading the push toward putting Libya back on the map is the younger Gadhafi, who recently won praise for helping release five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who were jailed for allegedly infecting Libyan children with HIV.

Those involved with his newest project see it as an opportunity to diversify Libya's economy, which is now dependent on oil for about 95 percent of export earnings and 25 percent of its GDP, according to U.S. government figures.

"Libya has opened up to the world, and tourism will come. Now the question is how to do it in a positive way," said Stefan Behling, an architect who specializes in sustainable development and whose British firm Foster + Partners was commissioned by Gadhafi's son to work on the plan.

But obstacles remain in this country where Moammar Gadhafi has ruled with an iron fist for more than three decades and outsiders have not been welcome.

Details about the Green Mountain project and how its vision would be implemented were vague. Organizers of Monday's ceremony, which featured an array of international archaeologists and conservationists, said the Libyan government was directly involved, though a new body known as the Green Mountain Conservation and Development Authority — whose board of trustees has not yet been named — would oversee the project.

No one could say how much the project would cost or how much has already been pledged by the government. Estimates ranged from $2 billion to $5 billion.

At Monday's event, organizers presented models and graphics depicting their ideas, including three small eco-friendly hotels and resorts, but a timeline for the projects was not given.

Despite the lack of specifics, the younger Gadhafi and others involved in the project stressed the importance of preserving Libya's ancient history and natural beauty, including tree-filled mountains and cliffs overlooking the sea, as the country opens its doors to more tourists and investors.

Part of the plan includes pushing tourist and local development further back into the mountains to leave the coast untouched. The three hotels would be set into the hills and remain unseen from the Greek ruins, organizers said. Large-scale tourism would be prohibited.

Renovation of the ancient city of Cyrene, which the Greeks first developed in 631 B.C., would be part of the project. Cyrene was one of the principal cities in the Hellenic world and was later settled by the Romans until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 365, according to UNESCO, which named Cyrene as a World Heritage Site in 1982.

"Libya is blessed with extremely diversified antiquities. But there is an upper limit to the number of tourists that these sites can contain," said Giuma Anag, chairman of Libya's Department of Archaeology.

Gadhafi wore traditional Libyan clothing, including a black hat and light golden scarf, during Monday's tour. He told reporters he spends two months a year in the area and has been dreaming of creating a sustainable region here for a "long time."

"It's part of our process to modernize our country and move forward. ... This treasure is not just for Libyans but for the whole of mankind," he said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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