French and British leaders visit Libya

Sarkozy and Cameron meet NTC leaders as fighting continues for control of holdout pro-Gaddafi strongholds.

    French and British leaders have travelled to Libya to congratulate the new rulers they helped install, as NATO-backed fighters continue their battle for control over Bani Walid.

    Thursday's joint visit is a victory lap for Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron, who defied doubters at home to lead a NATO bombing campaign that succeeded in ushering in a victory by forces who swept away Muanmar Gaddafi's 42-year rule last month.

    Reporting from Tripoli, Al Jazeera's Anita McNaught 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.

    The leaders, who have vowed to release billions of dollars more in frozen assets, are popular on the streets of Libya, where "Merci Sarkozy" and "Thank you Britain" are common graffiti slogans.

    Both may hope to earn political dividends back home from what now appears to have been a successful bet.

    But on the eve of their visit, the leader of Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) said heavy battles lie ahead against Gaddafi loyalists who have refused to surrender.

    Abdel Hafiz Ghogo, the NTC vice-chairman, told the Reuters news agency the two leaders would visit both Tripoli and Benghazi, where the NTC rulers are still based.

    Anti-Gaddafi fighters seized Tripoli, the Libyan capital, more than three weeks ago.

    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.

    Al Jazeera's McNaught said Libyans were not opposed to Western 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."

    However, at a press conference following today's meeting, Sarkozy said that there were no closed-door business deals and that France was not expecting preferential treatment.

    Sarkozy said that France's primary concern was "democracy, peace and reconciliation" for Libya.

    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.

    US envoy to Tripoli

    A senior US envoy has already visited Tripoli 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 Libya's new interim leader, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, on Wednesday, becoming the first official of the Obama administration to visit Tripoli since Gaddafi's government fell last month.

    In a statement delivered after the meeting with Abdel Jalil, Feltman said: "The United States and our international partners have an enduring commitment to supporting the Libyan people as they chart their country's future.

    "This includes working with NATO and our coalition partners to continue operations to protect Libyan civilians until they are no longer under threat."

    He also said he expected the new rulers in Tripoli to "share concerns about terrorism" with the US.

    Tripoli has been relatively stable since NTC forces overran it on August 23, but NATO-backed fighters are still trying to capture at least three towns held by Gaddafi loyalists.

    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 have been steadily, but slowly, inching towards Sirte," Al Jazeera's Hoda Abdel Hamid reported from Ajdabiya.

    "You get the feeling that effectively they're putting Sirte under blockade."

    After a week of fighting, NTC forces at Bani Walid have been urging people to leave before they 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.

    Meanwhile, Gaddafi has not been seen in public since June and his current whereabouts are unknown.

    To Gaddafi and his supporters, Cameron said, "It is over, give up" and added, "Anyone who thinks Gaddafi has any role [in ruling the country] should forget it".

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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