United States recognises Libya rebels

Rebel leaders won recognition as the legitimate government of Libya from the United States and other world...

A Libyan rebel fighter wearing an ammunition belt waits in a staging area Ajdabiya on April 14, 2011. Picture: AFP

Rebel leaders won

recognition as the legitimate government of Libya from the United

States and other world powers on Friday in a major boost to the rebels'

faltering campaign to oust Muammar Gaddafi.

Western nations said they also

planned to increase the military pressure on Gaddafi's forces to press

him to give up power after 41 years at the head of the North African

state.

Recognition of the rebels,

announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a meeting in Turkey

of the international contact group on Libya, is an important diplomatic

step which could unlock billions of dollars in frozen Libyan funds.

The

decision comes as reports are circulating that Gaddafi has sent out

emissaries seeking a negotiated end to the conflict, although he himself

has remained defiant in his public utterances.

The

Istanbul conference attended by more than 30 countries and

international bodies also agreed road map whereby Gaddafi should

relinquish power and plans for Libya's transition to democracy under the

rebel National Transitional Council (TNC).

"Until

an interim authority is in place, the United States will recognise the

TNC as the legitimate governing authority for Libya, and we will deal

with it on that basis," Clinton said.

The

decision to recognise the rebels, who have been waging a five-month

military campaign against Gaddafi, meant the Libyan leader had no option

but to stand down, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said.

The

contact group statement added: "... the formation of an interim

government should be quickly followed by the convening of a National

Congress with representatives from all parts of Libya."

SPECIAL ENVOY

The

U.N. Secretary-General's special envoy to Libya, Abdul Elah Al-Khatib,

will be authorised to present terms for Gaddafi to leave power, but the

British foreign minister said military action against Gaddafi would be

stepped up at the same time.

The political package to be offered Gaddafi will include a cease-fire to halt fighting in the five-month-old war.

A

rebel spokesman said he did not expect a cease-fire until Gaddafi had

been defeated and rejected suggestions of a pause in the fighting during

the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins at the start of August.

Mahmud

Shammam, press secretary for TNC said: "Prophet Muhammad had great

battles during Ramadan in Mecca, so there is nothing religious that will

keep us from fighting for our freedom."

Foreign

Secretary William Hague told Reuters that at the same time as al-Khatib

pursues a political settlement, "the military pressure on the regime

will continue to intensify."

The

Libya contact group, established in London in March, is trying, at its

fourth meeting, to find a political solution that would persuade Gaddafi

to quit.

China and Russia, which

have taken a softer line towards Gaddafi, were invited to the contact

group meeting for the first time, but decided not to become involved.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said he hoped a political solution could emerge by the start of Ramadan.

The

rebels urgently need cash and contact group members should consider

opening credit lines to the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) in

Benghazi, he said.

He also backed a

rebel proposal for the release of $3 billion (1 billion pounds) of

frozen Libyan assets to alleviate a "grave" humanitarian situation

during Ramadan in areas of Libya controlled by the rebels and by

Gaddafi.

U.S. officials said the

decision to extend formal diplomatic recognition marked an important

step towards unblocking more than $34 billion in Libyan assets in the

United States but cautioned it could still take time to get cash

flowing.

Speaking in The Hague on

Thursday, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen called on alliance members to

provide more warplanes to bomb increasingly elusive Libyan military

targets.

Britain said it was

sending four more Tornado reconnaissance planes to beef up the NATO

mission. Such aircraft have become vital as Gaddafi's forces have hidden

their armour and artillery from NATO warplanes.

Britain

said its warplanes had on Thursday destroyed a Libyan army armoured

personnel carrier near Zlitan, west of the rebel stronghold of Misrata.

British aircraft had so far damaged or destroyed more than 500 Libyan military targets including command and control sites.

"But

as the campaign has progressed, the regime is increasingly attempting

to conceal troops, equipment and headquarters, often in populated

areas," a British military spokesman, General Nick Pope, said.

On the ground, rebel fighters have been unable to make much progress against pro-Gaddafi forces of late.

On

the front line near the rebel stronghold of Misrata in the west, rebel

fighters were digging in against mortar fire from pro-Gaddafi forces,

sheltering in large concrete water pipes brought up by bulldozer to

serve as makeshift protection.

One fighter, who gave his name as Bashir, said: "Whenever we have ammunition, we move forward. But now we are not moving."

Ahmed,

a 19-year-old student, said: "It's not the Grad missiles we are afraid

of. They are easy. It's the mortars we are afraid of."

Rebel

commanders in the village of Al-Qawalish, about 100 km (60 miles) west

of Tripoli, said they were massing their forces for an advance east

towards the town of Garyan, which controls access to the main highway to

the capital, but they have struggled to hold their positions in recent

days.

UNCERTAIN INTENTIONS

It

is not clear whether Gaddafi intends to fight on in the hope of keeping

his grip on the territory round Tripoli or seek an exit strategy that

guarantees security for himself and his family, but he is not seen

having any future role in Libya.

"Countries

are starting to look past Gaddafi. He's going to go, and the meeting

can be a useful place to take stock of and prepare for that transition,"

one senior U.S. official told reporters aboard Clinton's plane before

landing in Istanbul.

Earlier this

week, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said emissaries from Gaddafi's

government in contact with NATO members had said that Gaddafi was ready

to quit, but U.S. officials were unconvinced.

Gaddafi himself, in his latest speech on Libyan television on Thursday evening, said he was staying put.

"I will fight until the end," he said. "The end of NATO will be in Libya."