France has become the first major European power to recognise the rebel council as the legitimate government
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, is to meet with leaders of Libya's opposition council during a trip to the Middle East next week, she has told US lawmakers.
Clinton's statement of intent comes as France on Thursday became the first major European country to recognise Libya's opposition National Council based in Benghazi as the country's legitimate representative. In a separate joint statement with the United Kingdom, France also called for the Gaddafi "clique" to leave office.
"We are reaching out to the opposition inside and outside of Libya," Clinton said while announcing her trip to Tunisia and Egypt.
"I will be meeting with some of those figures, both in the United States and when I travel next week, to discuss what more the United States and others can do," she said.
US Secretary of State Clinton said her government
was engaged in efforts to force an end to the
violence in Libya
The opposition council is led by Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the former justice minister, who resigned soon after the Libyan government began a violent crackdown on protesters in February.
Earlier, Gene Cretz, the US Ambassador to Libya, met with opponents of the government led by Muammar Gaddafi.
"We are engaging a wide range of leaders, and those who both understand and can potentially influence events in Libya," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters on Tuesday.
Clinton on Thursday also asserted that there was a need for international consensus on any intervention in Libya, and that a unilateral move by the United States could have "unforseeable" consequences.
She also expressed doubt that any proposed no-fly zone would Libya would serve to protect citizens effectively, pointing to the examples of previous such measures taken against Iraq and Serbia.
"We are working to create an international consensus because we think that is absolutely critical to anything that
anybody, especially us, does," Clinton said, saying there was considerable ambivalence over what should be done.
"Absent international authorisation, the United States acting alone would be stepping into a situation whose
consequences are unforeseeable," Clinton said.
Clinton said the United States was focusing on humanitarian relief and building links to Libya's opposition groups, adding that the State Department had suspended its relations with the Libyan embassy in Washington and that it was expected to "end operations as the embassy of Libya".
She also warned that Gaddafi's government was still in possession of "chemical weapons".
Jay Carney, the White House's spokesman, said on Thursday that the US government had reached out to Libyan opposition groups, but that it was still in the process of finding out "what their vision is, who they represent, what their ideas are and where they would take Libya in a post-Gaddafi future".
Cameron, Sarkozy pressure
David Cameron, the UK's prime minister, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, on Thursday issued a joint statement calling for the Gaddafi government to step down.
"To stop further suffering of the Libyan people, Muammar Gaddafi and his clique should leave," they said in a joint letter to Herman Von Rompuy, the European Union president.
"We support the efforts of the Libyan Interim Transitional National Council to prepare for a representative and accountable government.
"We should send the clear political signal that we consider the Council to be valid political interlocutors, and an important voice for the Libyan people in this phase," they said.
France recognises council
Earlier, France recognised the opposition National Council as the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people.
The move, which will see an ambassador sent to the rebel-held town of Benghazi in Libya's east, was announced during a meeting between envoys from the council and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, in Paris on Thursday.
"France has recognised the national transition council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people," Ali al-Issawi, an envoy from the council said after the talks. The French presidency also issued a similar statement.
Al-Issawi added that the council would "open a diplomatic mission, that is our own embassy in Paris, and an ambassador from France will be sent to Benghazi".
"This ambassador will be in Benghazi for a transition period before returning to Tripoli."
Libyan state media said the country plans to cut ties with France in response to the announcement, adding a "grave secret" would prompt the fall of Sarkozy's government.
Khalid Kaim, Libya's deputy foreign minister, said on Thursday that his government may cut diplomatic ties with other countries that backed the rebels against the Gaddafi government.
Ahmed Shabani, a spokesman for the opposition council, told Al Jazeera the move was a "major step forward", but that more countries needed to follow suit.
'Gaddafi must go'
Tim Friend, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Paris, said the French announcement was a "very significant statement of intent which reinforces France's recognition that the Libyan transitional National Council is the legitimate body now representing Libya".
"I think France has gone further than anyone else so far in doing that," he said.
Opposition forces set up the National Council in Benghazi on February 27, weeks after a popular revolt against the 40-year rule of Muammar Gaddafi began in the country.
Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, has also urged partners in the European Union to follow suit and engage with Libyan opposition leaders.
Speaking after talks with Guido Westerwelle, his German counterpart, Juppe said: "We are on the same track to say Colonel Gaddafi is discredited, he must go, we must engage dialogue with the new Libyan representatives."
Following the French announcement, Luis Amado, the Portuguese foreign minister, said he had sent a message to Gaddafi saying his regime "is over".
"The message I sent was that the Gaddafi regime in our view is over, it's legitimacy is over," he said on Thursday.
Germany also announced that it has frozen Libyan government bank accounts held in the country, in line with UN sanctions agreed. Assets belonging to Gaddafi's government have already been frozen in Britain, Canada, the US and Switzerland.
Nato in no-fly zone talks
Meanwhile, European leaders and defence ministers met at a joint NATO-EU summit on Thursday to discuss possible economic, humanitarian and military responses to the Libyan crisis, including setting up a no-fly zone.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato secretary-general, announced that two decisions had been made during the meeting: to increase the presence of NATO maritime assets in the central Mediterranean, and to "direct NATO military authorities to begin detailed planning with regard to supporting humanitarian operations, and, subject to further UN decision, more active work to enforce the arms embargo".
On the matter of a no-fly zone, he said that "ministers agreed further planning will be required". He said, however, that NATO was "united, vigilant and ready to act", but would only do so if it had a "clear legal mandate" and "strong regional support".
EU leaders are set to meet to further discuss the issue on Friday in Brussels.
Shabani, the spokesman for the Libyan opposition council, told Al Jazeera that the "legal basis [for an intervention] is clear", and that the UN was "really slow at acting upon" events and hence NATO action should not be predicated on a UN resolution.
Fidel Castro, Cuba's revolutionary leader, and Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, have issued a statement saying that any NATO military intervention in Libya would only "prolong" the conflict and would be self-serving.
Diplomats at the UN, meanwhile, said that there was currently a deadlock on whether or not to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, with China and Russia opposed to the move, and Germany preferring a tightening of sanctions.
NATO aircraft surveillance
The AFP news agency reported that Nato aircraft had begun a 24-hour air surveillance of Libya's air space on Thursday, according to an official speaking anonymously.
It and the Le Monde newspaper also quoted a source close to Sarkozy saying that the French president will propose "targeted air strikes" in Libya to EU leaders.
Al Jazeera's Tim Friend said there had been no independent confirmation of the proposal, but if true it would be likely met with strong resistance from other nations.
EU diplomats said earlier in the day that the body had formally extended its embargo on Libya to include five financial organisations, including the central bank, and a former senior finance official.
And Russia also announced that it was banning weapons sales to Libya, reinforcing a UN embargo. Moscow is the world's second-largest arms exporter after the United States, and was one of the main suppliers of weapons to Libya.
Navi Pillay, the UN human rights chief, meanwhile reiterated her stance that Libya's aerial bombardment of civilians and use of heavy weapons against protesters may amount to "crimes against humanity".
Speaking in Geneva on Thursday, she said she had also received reports of executions, rapes and disappearances in the north African country, and that all allegations must be investigated fully.