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L IBYA'S ERRATIC ruler, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, appears to be taking advantage of the world's preoccupation with the Persian Gulf to meddle in several African nations. Last month, rebel forces in Chad, just south of Libya, overthrew the government with Libyan support.

Libya also has strong ties with the Sudan, which provided sanctuaries for the Chad rebels before their final assault. To the southwest of Libya, the government of Niger accused Libya recently of supporting an uprising near the Niger-Libya border. Gadhafi is even interfering in faraway Liberia, where Libya is providing arms to one of the warring factions in the civil war there.

Gadhafi has seemed somewhat subdued ever since American warplanes bombed Libya in 1986 in retaliation for a terrorist bombing in Berlin. Feeling increasingly isolated in the world, he is believed to be seeking more normal ties with Western nations. Last month, he even expelled a terrorist group from Libya.

But his continued meddling indicates that he is seeking to extend his influence in other ways. He even had the effrontery to ask Iraq to send its American hostages to him, because the United States recently "ab
ducted" several hundred Libyans from Chad. Actually, the Libyans had been serving in Chad in an anti-Libyan force, and when their side lost, they were afraid of reprisals.

Iraq refused the request.

Chad is one of the most impoverished spots on earth, and it is made even poorer by the continuing civil conflicts that replace one warlord with another. The main cause for international concern in the latest rebellion is the possible extension of Libyan influence.

Libya looks back sadly on the days of the Cold War, when it was able to use one superpower against the other. On the "abduction" issue, Libya has asked for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, but it doesn't expect its request to attract much support.

One Libyan diplomat said nostalgically: "It is no longer the Security Council we knew when the Soviet Union was a superpower."

That is true, and the increased influence of a properly functioning United Nations will help to rein in outlaw nations such as Libya.

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