Istanbul – The United States formally recognized the rebel leadership in Libya as the country’s legitimate government on Friday. The move, made at an international gathering here to discuss the five-month-old conflict in Libya, ratcheted up the diplomatic pressure on Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi amid a continuing NATO-led bombing campaign to push him from power.
At the meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that Colonel Qaddafi’s government no longer had any legitimacy, and that the United States would join more than 30 countries in extending diplomatic recognition to the main opposition group, known as the Transitional National Council.
“We will help the T.N.C. sustain its commitment to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity of Libya, and we will look to it to remain steadfast in its commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms,” Mrs. Clinton said.
In an audio speech carried on Libyan television, Colonel Qaddafi appeared as determined as ever to fight on, and dismissed the recognition of the rebel government by the leading powers.
“Trample on those recognitions, trample on them under your feet,” he told thousands of supporters in the coastal city of Zlitan, who had gathered for a rally broadcast on state tv, Reuters reported. “They are worthless,” he said.
In the early stages of the war, Western nations were reluctant to extend recognition to the rebels, not knowing who they were and worrying about their possible ties to Al Qaeda and other militant groups. Over the months, though, those fears have been assuaged, and most nations are lined up behind the transitional government.
The step allows the United States and other countries to turn over to the rebel group some of the Libyan financial assets that have been frozen in foreign banks, to help underwrite its efforts to oust Colonel Qaddafi and to administer the part of the country that the rebels control.
“We have a lot of frozen funds around the world, and now it would be up the country to release a certain percent under certain conditions,” said Mahmoud Shammam, a rebel spokesman. “We assured them in many ways that we are heading towards a democratic state and with the support of allies, friends we would make that happen.”
Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, said that Italy would unfreeze some $140 million of Libyan assets and give them to the rebels, with more than $500 million to follow.
Other nations, like France and the United States, will now find it easier to hand over frozen Libyan assets to the rebels. The United States has more than $30 billion in frozen Qaddafi-government assets.
The Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said that Turkey saw “merit in the suggestion for the release of $3 billion from the frozen assets of Libya under U.N. supervision.” He suggested opening lines of credit to the rebels to meet their “urgent need for cash” before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Turkey, he said, had already started a $200-million credit line.
Mr. Davutoglu told reporters Thursday night that Colonel Qaddafi culd remain in Libya if an agreement is reached, according to the Turkish Daily News.
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In the rebel held city of Zintan, on the high plateau of the mountains in Libya’s west, where local men have pushed the Qaddafi militatry back on several fronts, a group of elderly men sat in the shade beside the main mosque.
They were buoyed by the news from Istanbul, which all of them had heard.
“The recognition of America has opened a door for us from Africa to the world,” said one of them, Mohammed el-Judaya.
Whatever the geopolitics, however, the men made clear they had ongoing practical concerns. Much of the mountainous food is short of food, fuel and water, phone service is mostly cut off and the Qaddafi forces are not far away. The war goes, with life stalled and hardships ahead.
“We have no money for Ramadan,” said Muftah Benghazi. “This is difficult for us.”
Even with a growing list of international allies, the rebels have made only halting progress in wresting control of the country from Colonel Qaddafi’s forces. On Wednesday, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, told Reuters that NATO was intensifying its military campaign in Libya.
Yet, with a “no-boots-on-the-ground policy” in Libya, the Western nations have found it hard to dislodge Colonel Qaddafi from power, as his forces have dug in around the capital, Tripoli, and other strategic cities where he retains at least some support among the civilian population.
NATO has been frustrated by the rebels’ inability to organize themselves into a force strong enough to topple the government, even with thousands of airstrikes on the Qaddafi strongholds. Several countries, including Britain and France, have sent arms, ammunition and other military supplies to the rebels inan effort to build up their war-fighting capacity.
On Friday, the Libyan government accused NATO of working in concert with the rebels in an offensive against Brega, an important oil city in the east, a coordination that would seem to go beyond the United Nations mandate of protecting civilians. But NATO dismissed the charge.
There has been considerable diplomatic actionin recent days, with the French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, saying that various emissaries from Colonel Qaddafi have gone to different coalition countries, including France, suggesting that he was ready to discuss giving up power. “Ending the crisis entails the departure of Qaddafi from power,” he told France Info radio earlier this week. “This was absolutely not a given two or three months ago.”
But Mr. Juppe said that the contacts had not produced negotiations, and that France was not holding negotiations with Colonel Qaddafi, despite claims to that effect by Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, the colonel’s second-eldest son.
Some countries appear willing to have Colonel Qaddafi and his family remain in Libya if they give up power either to the rebel council or to a new, negotiated national unity government. In other words, there seems to be a new distinction being made between giving up power and going into exile.
While everyone speaks of Colonel Qaddafi “leaving,” or “going,” they are much vaguer now about whether he must leave Libya, or whether leaving power is sufficient. The Libyan government has made similar overtures in the past, with the proviso that his son Seif succeed him — a condition that is absolutely unacceptable to the rebels, not to speak of the Western powers.
How that plays against the indictment of Colonel Qaddafi on war-crimes charges by the International Criminal Court, or with the Security Council resolution calling on all member states to bring him to trial, is unclear. But as the war drags on in Libya, and Colonel Qaddafi remains in authority in Tripoli, there is more pressure to find a negotiated solution.
But not all countries are in agreement. Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, said on Friday that any secret talks with Tripoli were counterproductive, and that all such negotiations should be conducted by the United Nations special envoy for Libya, Abdel Ilah al-Khatib. Mr. Frattini said that “Mr. al-Khatib is entitled to present a political package including the cease-fire, and to negotiate with Tripoli and Benghazi to form a government of national unity.”
At the meeting in Turkey, representatives of international organizations, including the Arab League, the European Union and the African Union, reiterated their support for the opposition, which is based in Benghazi in the east, and for a transition of power in Libya.
In a background briefing ahead of Friday’s meeting, a senior State Department official said that the “NATO operations continue at a very high pace,” with 5,000 air sorties since March, and that “we continue to believe that time is on our side.”
However, a ceasefire before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan was not likely, Mr. Shammam said; Ramadan this year begins on Aug. 1.
The Libyan council has said it would form a government within a year, a process that diplomats said would be helped by Friday’s broad international recognition.
Sebnem Arsu reported from Istanbul and Steven Erlanger from Paris. J. David Goodman contributed reporting from New York and C.J. Chivers from Zintan, Libya.
This article, “US Recognizes Rebels in Libya,” originally appeared in The New York Times.