French and UK leaders welcomed in Tripoli

Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron offer continued help to NTC leaders as fighting continues for pro-Gaddafi strongholds.

    Sarkozy and Cameron flew in to Tripoli under heavy guard on Thursday, to be hailed by Libya's new leaders [Reuters]

    French and British leaders have travelled to Libya to congratulate the country's new rulers, the first visit by Western leaders since Muammar Gaddafi was ousted from power last month.

    Thursday's joint visit to Tripoli by Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron came as Libyan fighters continued their battle for control over Sirte.

    The two leaders met with National Transitional Council (NTC) leaders in Tripoli and are to fly to Benghazi, where the council is still based.

    The French president and UK prime minister had defied many doubters at home to help bring about a NATO- bombing campaign that succeeded in helping to end Gaddafi's 42-year rule.

    At a news conference held under heavy security, the men offered continued military support against Gaddafi loyalists holding substantial parts of the country, as well as in the hunt for the former leader and others wanted for crimes against humanity.

    Mahmoud Jibril, the NTC interim premier, spoke of "our thanks for this historic stance" taken by the two European leaders, whose backing for the February uprising drew a hesitant US and some Arab governments into a war that did not always look set to end well for the rebels.

    "This is not done. This is not over," Cameron said in pledging further aid. "There are still parts of Libya that are under Gaddafi's control. Gaddafi is still at large and we must make sure that this work is completed."
    He said a Franco-British move at the UN on Friday could mean London alone unfreezing $19bn of assets, while also offering help with disarmament and healthcare for the injured.

    With a clear eye on public opinion at home, Cameron drew attention to the case of a boy wounded by a grenade at his school who would be treated by British specialists, while Sarkozy rebuffed suggestions of self-interest in the war, declaring: "We did what we did because we thought it was just".

    Al Jazeera's Anita McNaught, reporting from Tripoli, said that the leaders' visit was "all about building confidence".

    "Of course, France and Britain took leading roles in the intervention in Libya, but it's much more important now, in this post-Gaddafi period, that France and Britain be also seen to be leading the recovery," she said.

    "Right now, some of the mistakes made in Iraq and Afghanistan are not being made here."

    Laurence Lee, reporting from London, said Cameron was happy to add the Libyan "foreign policy success
    to his resume ... Clearly it's very easy compared to Tony Blair's [experience] in Iraq."

    And Al Jazeera's Jackie Rowland, reporting from Paris, said, "Sarkozy is seeing this as the mother of all photo opportunities, as he's running extremely low in opinion polls in France".

    'Merci Sarkozy'

    The visiting leaders appear to be popular on the streets of Libya, where "Merci Sarkozy" and "Thank you Britain" are common graffiti slogans.

    Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of the NTC, strongly denied talk of "under the table deals for Libya's riches", though he did say key allies could expect preferential treatment in the future.

    While insisting no deals had been cut in advance of France and Britain backing the rebellion against a ruler with whom both had been improving relations, Abdel Jalil said: "As a faithful Muslim people ... we will appreciate these efforts and they will have priority within a framework of transparency".

    At the press conference following Thursday's meeting, Sarkozy said that there were no closed-door business deals and that France was not expecting preferential treatment.

    Other states which did business with Gaddafi, notably China and Russia, have been concerned that their lukewarm attitude to the NTC may cost them economically.

    While Abdel Jalil stressed a desire to allocate contracts on the best terms for Libya, and to honour existing contracts, he said some could be reviewed.

    Those deals signed by Gaddafi which were skewed by personal corruption could be cancelled, he said - noting he had served as a minister under the old regime and knew its secrets.

    McNaught said Libyans were not opposed to Western or other business interests.

    "One of the most crucial things that the NTC has said again and again is that we will honour existing contracts," she said.

    "Because, in truth, the pause button was hit. What Libya needs most of all right now is for those countries that had ongoing business here to pick up where they left off."

    Western countries and North African neighbours are anxious to welcome Libya into the international community, not least so it can restart lucrative oil production frozen by six months of war.

    Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, is expected in Libya on Friday. Mohammed Kamel Amr, Egypt's foreign minister, is also due to visit.

    'Proved the sceptics wrong'

    Libya fighters seized Tripoli more than three weeks ago but the NTC has not yet been able to safely establish a government in a capital still bristling with armed men from disparate groups. 

    Cameron offered Jibril and Abdel Jalil a personal vote of confidence, saying they had "continually proved the sceptics wrong", and urging them to continue a "generous" policy of trying to include different groups in government and avoiding reprisals against those who took Gaddafi's side.

    But the country is deeply divided, as many of its new rulers hail from Benghazi in the east, while the fighters who won the battle for Tripoli mostly come the west.

    The NTC has promised to name a more inclusive government lineup within days.

    Abdel Jalil said he would only declare "liberation" - and hence set the clock ticking on a 20-month timetable to free elections - once the NTC controlled all Libya's territory.

    A senior US envoy visited Tripoli on Wednesday to show support for Libya's new leaders, saying the NTC was getting the country's many armed groups under control and that the aftermath of Libya's uprising would not be dominated by one faction.

    Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, met Abdel Jalil, on Wednesday, becoming the first official of the Obama administration to visit Tripoli since Gaddafi's government fell last month.

    'Inching towards Sirte'

    Interim government forces are besieging one of those last bastions, Bani Walid, 180km south of the capital, along with Gaddafi's hometown, Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast and Sabha, deep in the southern desert.

    "The fighters entered the Sirte area but did not reach the city," Al Jazeera's Hoda Abdel Hamid reported from Ajdabiya, as rebels moved onto Gaddafi's hometown from the south and west. 

    "They pushed from the west to al-Gharbiyat bridge and then retreated to Wadi Jarif, a valley about 36km away from the city centre." 

    "But there is growing concern about the fate of civilians," our correspondent said, referring to the continuing "crackdown by Gaddafi loyalists on the rest of the population".

    And, after a week of fighting, NTC forces at Bani Walid have been urging people to leave before rebel fighters try to storm the town.

    Scores of cars packed with families left Bani Walid on Wednesday as NTC forces broadcast messages telling them to go and handed out free petrol to help them evacuate.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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