LIBYAN rebel leader Mahmud Jibril was headed for the White House today as he pressed a diplomatic offensive buoyed by a British invitation to open a first foreign office and the breaking of the loyalist siege of Misrata.
Hours after rebel fighters seized the airport of Libya’s third-largest city, sending troops loyal to Moammar Gaddafi fleeing down the coastal road towards Tripoli, Canadian and British warships beat back a naval attack on Misrata’s vital seaport, NATO revealed late yesterday.
Jibril, who handles foreign affairs for the rebels’ National Transitional Council (NTC), was to hold White House talks with US national security adviser Tom Donilon.
US officials would not say whether President Barack Obama would drop by Jibril’s meeting with Donilon, a practice sometimes used by the White House for guests for whom protocol does not dictate an official meeting.
Asked by CNN television what he expected from Friday’s talks with the US administration, Jibril replied: “We need the recognition.”
The Libyan opposition, based in the eastern city of Benghazi, wanted Washington to recognise the body as “the sole legitimate interlocutor of the Libyan people,” he said.
Unlike France, Italy, Gambia and Qatar, the US has not yet recognised the NTC. Jibril told CNN he believed Jordan would recognise the opposition in the coming days.
“All we need is for the world to understand our cause and help us get our legitimate rights realised,” he said.
But White House spokesman Jay Carney signalled that Washington, which helped launch the NATO military operation against Gaddafi’s forces but has since taken a support role, was not ready to grant full status to the NTC.
“If the question is recognising the (NTC) as the official government of Libya, I think that’s premature,” he said.
“We think that the council serves and has served as a credible and legitimate interlocutor for the Libyan people, for the opposition.”
Jibril warned earlier that the council was facing a “very acute financial problem” and needed help from the US administration.
Last week in Rome, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Kadhafi regime’s frozen assets in the US would be used to help the Libyan people.
Around 30 billion dollars in Libyan assets have been frozen in the US as a result of economic sanctions.
Jibril’s visit comes as the Obama administration gradually steps up contacts with Gaddafi’s opposition to better understand the movement before deciding on the extent of US assistance.
Defence Secretary Robert Gates said the air war in Libya has cost the US roughly $750 million to date, more than the Pentagon’s initial estimate of $604 million.
Yesterday, another senior rebel leader, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, met British Prime Minister David Cameron, who invited the NTC to open an office in London, its first foreign mission.
In Libya, Salah Badi, who commanded the rebel assault on Misrata’s airport, said rebel positions were now only 10 kilometres from Zliten, the next main centre on the 215-kilometre road from Misrata to Tripoli.
Canadian and British warships patrolling waters off Libya beat back an attack by an unspecified number of fast-moving small boats on Misrata port hours after the city’s airport fell to rebels, NATO said in Brussels.
Canadian frigate HMCS Charlottetown, British destroyer HSM Liverpool and a French gunboat not under NATO command repelled Kadhafi regime forces early yesterday, NATO said.
The alliance said it conducted air strikes near Tripoli on Thursday when the regime had accused NATO of bombing Gaddafi’s compound and killing three people.
East of Tripoli, an explosion shook the suburb of Tajura, which has been the focus of almost daily coalition air strikes since March 19, a witness said.
Separately, a security contractor shot in a murky checkpoint incident in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi was 47-year-old Frenchman Pierre Marziali, founder of Secopex, industry sources told AFP.
The International Organisation for Migration said it flew about 1,500 migrants – who had fled violence in Libya only to find themselves stranded in remote areas of neighbouring Chad – to the Chadian capital N’Djamena this week.