Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi hailed a "new era" in relations with Italy on Wednesday, saying a history of hatred and destruction during Italy's 30-year-colonial rule had been replaced by a future of friendship and cooperation.
But in a demonstration that the wounds of Italy's occupation still run deep, Gadhafi arrived for his first visit to Italy wearing a black-and-white photo pinned to his military uniform of a Libyan national hero killed by Italian colonial authorities.
Gadhafi said the photo symbolized the tragedy of Italy's 1911-1941 occupation in the same way Christians wear a cross to mark the tragedy of Christ's death.
"It is a tragedy symbolized by the cross, and this is a tragedy symbolized by the photo," Gadhafi told a press conference with Premier Silvio Berlusconi.
Despite the colonial past, Italy and Libya have long had good ties, and major Italian corporations such as oil giant Eni have invested heavily in the oil-and-gas rich country.
Relations were sealed by a $5 billion compensation agreement signed in August that includes construction projects, student grants and pensions for Libyan soldiers who served with the Italians during World War II.
Gadhafi praised his "dear friend" Berlusconi for having taken the "historic decision" to apologize for Italy's occupation by signing the accord. He said it was in the interests of both countries to promote "friendship, peace, stability, trade and tourism and not military campaigns, destruction, hatred" committed by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini under Italian occupation.
Berlusconi said he had a "true and profound friendship" with the Libyan leader, whom he described as a wise man of the world.
But human rights groups and opposition politicians decried the Libyan strongman's visit, criticizing Libya's human rights record and a recent deal under which Italy sends back immigrants to Libya without checking to see if any have legitimate asylum claims.
Human Right Watch said the visit was a celebration of the "dirty deal" over immigration. A former Berlusconi ally, Pier Ferdinando Casini, said the fanfare for the Libyan leader went "beyond decency and good taste."
A few hundred people gathered in a downtown Rome piazza to protest. "We don't need another dictator in Italy," read one placard. "Human rights are not for sale," read another.
Gadhafi was to have spoken inside the Italian Senate on Thursday, but opposition lawmakers balked, forcing the speech to be moved to a palazzo next door.
'New era has begun'
Gadhafi stepped off the Libyan plane wearing a full dress military uniform and trademark sunglasses, female bodyguards in tow. Pinned to his chest was the photo of Omar al-Mukhtar, a Libyan who led a guerrilla war against the Italians in the 1920s and 1930s and was executed for it.
The photo showed al-Mukhtar captured and chained by his Italian captor. Al-Mukhtar's elderly son, Mohammed, dressed in a traditional white robe and leaning on a cane, followed Gadhafi down the steps of the plane.
Gadhafi said Italian government officials had met with Mohammed al-Mukhtar and a delegation of sons and grandsons of "martyrs," making the visit "historic."
"An era is closed. A new era has begun," he declared.
In return for Italy's $5 billion compensation package, Libya agreed to crack down on the thousands of illegal migrants smuggled each year across the Mediterranean to Italy, although waves of boats keep arriving, often making it to the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa.
The U.N. refugee agency, the Vatican and aid groups have criticized the new immigration accord, saying it deprives migrants of their right to apply for asylum in Italy. Berlusconi said the agreement was working, and that whoever wants to seek asylum can do so in Libya.
Gadhafi said political asylum is not a concern for the majority of the would-be immigrants, who are mainly attracted to Europe's wealth and use Libya as a jumping-off point.
"They come out of the forests and say 'There's money up north' and they go toward Libya and Europe," said Gadhafi. "Don't take this political-asylum issue seriously," he added. "Sometimes it makes me laugh."
The two leaders also discussed reform of the U.N. Security Council, piracy in Somalia and other issues.