Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has apologised to Libya for damage inflicted by Italy during the colonial era and signed a five-billion-dollar investment deal by way of compensation.

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Berlusconi made the apology during a visit to the Mediterranean city of Benghazi for a meeting with Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi to seal a cooperation accord with the oil-rich north African nation.

“It is my duty, as a head of government, to express to you in the name of the Italian people our regret and apologies for the deep wounds that we have caused you,” said Berlusconi, whose comments were translated into Arabic.

He and Kadhafi then signed a “friendship and cooperation agreement” aimed at recompensing Libya for damage incurred during the colonial era.

“The accord will provide for 200 million dollars a year over the next 25 years through investments in infrastructure projects in Libya,” Berlusconi said.

“This agreement should put an end to 40 years of discord,” he earlier told reporters.

Defeat of colonialism

The signing ceremony took place in the garden of a palace occupied by the Italian governor in colonial times.

Berlusconi then bowed before the son of the hero of Libyan resistance against the Italian occupiers, Omar Mokhtar, in a symbolic gesture.

“This is an historic moment when two brave men acknowledge the defeat of colonialism,” Kadhafi said, raising his arms in a sign of victory.

“The Libyan people endured injustice and were attacked in their homes and they deserve an apology and compensation,” he added before a crowd which included diplomats and the children and grandchildren of Libyan resistance heroes.

Formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, Libya was occupied by Italy in 1911 before becoming a colony in the 1930s.

The country gained its independence in 1951 after a brief period under a UN-mandated Franco-British administration.

Italy and Libya have spent years negotiating a wide-ranging treaty to cover compensation for Rome's military occupation and colonisation.

Italians bitter

An association representing Italians expelled from Libya in 1970 has denounced Rome in a statement on Saturday for compensating Libya and not repatriated Italians.

It said Berlusconi should have “a sudden burst of dignity, humanity and respect so as to finally give satisfaction… to the 20,000 Italian citizens who are still waiting for fair compensation from their government.”

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is set to follow in Berlusconi's footsteps next week, for the first visit by such a high-ranking US official to Libya since 1953.

Italy apologises to Libya for colonial era damage