Libya Talks Expected to Boost US Ties with Rebel Forces

Posted July 14th, 2011 at 10:35 pm (UTC-5)
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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has arrived in Turkey for international talks on Libya expected to deepen Washington's ties with opposition forces fighting to overthrow Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Clinton will confer Friday with leaders from other members of the Contact Group on Libya to assess the North African country's future and discuss further steps to support the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council.

Senior U.S. officials traveling with Clinton said Washington would strengthen its relations with the council once it presents detailed plans for a democratic, transparent and inclusive government.

U.S. officials say they want more details on exactly what the council's strategy will be for guiding the country to democratic elections and broadening its base beyond its strongholds in eastern Libya.

Opposition leaders are expected to lay out their plans for the way forward at Friday's contact group meeting in Istanbul, the fourth international gathering on Libya since March, when the uprising began.

The United States and a growing number of countries consider the council the legitimate interlocutor for the Libyan people but have yet to offer full diplomatic recognition. That step could eventually unlock Libyan assets frozen in the U.S. for the cash-strapped government-in-waiting in Benghazi.

Washington and its NATO allies want Mr. Gadhafi to step down immediately to allow Libya to begin a democratic transition. They say their four-month-long campaign of airstrikes on pro-Gadhafi forces will continue as long as government troops keep attacking Libyan civilians.

On Thursday, rebel forces attacked the government-held coastal town of Brega, a strategic oil hub in the east of the country.

Medical sources in nearby Ajdabiya said one rebel was killed and at least five wounded in the clashes as opposition fighters reported the first columns advancing beyond a front line that had stagnated for weeks.

A Libyan government spokesman said government troops had defeated what he called a coordinated attack by NATO forces and rebels. Moussa Ibrahim told journalists that opposition fighters backed by NATO air and sea forces had attacked Brega. He said the assault violated the alliance's U.N. mandate to protect civilians.

Ibrahim's assessment could not be immediately verified, although Al-Arabiya television also reported that rebels helped by NATO warplanes had attacked Brega from land and sea.

Mr. Gadhafi said Thursday he will never give in to the rebels or their NATO allies. In a message broadcast by loudspeaker to supporters in the town of Al-Ajaylat, he also called French President Nicolas Sarkozy a “war criminal.” France was an early contributor to the NATO mission.

Mr. Gadhafi's prime minister, Al-Baghdadi Al-Mahmoudi, also announced a symbolic end to economic cooperation with Italy, Libya's former colonial ruler and another participant in the NATO airstrikes. Mr. Al-Mahmoudi said Tripoli will no longer work with the Italian government or Italian oil giant ENI, one of the biggest investors in the Libyan oil sector.

ENI already had stopped its oil production in Libya and deliveries of Libyan natural gas to Italy several months ago. ENI's Libyan assets are split between the government-controlled region around Tripoli and the rebel-held regions in the east and west.