updated 2/26/2004 5:30:12 PM ET 2004-02-26T22:30:12

The United States lifted a long-standing ban on travel to Libya on Thursday and invited American companies to begin planning their return, after Moammar Gadhafi’s government affirmed that it was responsible for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988.

The administration also encouraged Libya to establish an official presence in Washington by opening an “interests section,” a diplomatic office a level beneath an embassy. The United States also will expand its diplomatic presence in Tripoli.

The White House announcement rescinded travel restrictions that have been in place for 23 years against Libya, a country which the United States had long branded a state sponsor of terrorism.

Allowing U.S. travel to Libya would give American corporations an opportunity to do lucrative business legally in Libya’s rich oil fields. It also would help Gadhafi emerge from semi-isolation.

Jackson on diplomatic mission
In an early foray into revived U.S.-Libyan diplomacy, Rev. Jesse Jackson left for Tripoli on Thursday, on a visit approved by the U.S. State Department

“In many ways Libya is pivotal,” Jackson told The Associated Press in the lobby of Tripoli hotel. “Libya is somewhere in the gap between the Middle East and Africa and the U.S., so reconnecting, reviving this relationship is of great value in terms of diplomacy, stability in the region and trade.”

Jackson said he would meet Gadhafi and other African heads of state Friday at the annual African Union summit in Sirte, 250 miles west of Tripoli. The summit ends Saturday.

Jackson applauded Washington’s decision to lift the travel ban, calling it the “dawning of a new day in American-Libyan relations.”

“It is in American and Libyan interests to remove the weapons of fear and threat ... and to be transparent and allies in the war against terrorism,” he said.

“This is a unique moment for bridge building.”

U.S. approval still required for business deals
U.S. firms which had holdings in Libya before sanctions were imposed were authorized to negotiate the terms of renewing their operations, the White House said. However, the companies will be required to obtain U.S. approval of any agreement, if economic sanctions remain in place.

The White House said it would “continuously evaluate the range of bilateral sanctions that remain in place relating to Libya” as its government moves toward totally dismantling its weapons of mass destruction programs and related missiles projects and adheres to its renunciation of terrorism.

The lifting of the travel ban came after the Jamahiriya news agency disavowed assertions by the Libyan prime minister that Libya had not acknowledged it blew the jetliner out of the skies over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, killing 270 people, including 181 Americans.

The United States has been moving toward improved relations with Tripoli since Gadhafi renounced the development of weapons of mass destruction and allowed weapons inspectors to verify that his country was abandoning nuclear, chemical and biological programs.

‘Actions ... serious, credible and consistent’
“While more remains to be done, Libya’s actions have been serious, credible and consistent with Col. Gadhafi’s public declaration that Libya seeks to play a role in ’building a new world free from (weapons of mass destruction) and from all forms of terrorism,’” a White House statement said.

The administration has decided to send a U.S. diplomat to Tripoli after a quarter-century of icy distance. More will be added, U.S. officials said. The Americans, working out of a so-called “interest section,” will explore renewing formal ties with Libya as well as helping U.S. travelers.

There are now 10 to 15 U.S. and British experts in the country to oversee the dismantling of Libya’s nuclear weapons program.

The U.S. effort to ease some sanctions with Libya is meant partly to reward Gadhafi. It also is aimed at encouraging other countries with serious weapons programs to give them up and reap the benefits of trade with the United States.

Passport restrictions rescinded
Secretary of State Colin Powell already has signed documents to rescind restrictions on the use of American passports for travel to Libya, National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said. Powell was expected to discuss the action during congressional testimony on Thursday.

The Treasury Department also was issuing a license for all travel-related expenditures in Libya.

“What this means in practical terms is that American citizens, for the first time in 23 years, will be able to travel to Libya, including for tourism, academic research and family visits,” the White House said.

The administration also said it was committed to increasing contacts between Libyan and American societies and exploring cooperation in humanitarian projects.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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