TOP officials from Western and regional powers gathered in Turkey last night to discuss strategies to strengthen the Libyan opposition and force out the country’s strongman, Muammar Gaddafi.
The fourth meeting of the Libya contact group follows prior contacts between France and members of Gaddafi’s regime that have raised the possibility of negotiating his departure.
With Gaddafi hanging on in Tripoli despite almost four months of NATO-led bombings, the rebels launched an offensive yesterday on the oil town of Brega, hoping they could dislodge loyalist troops and win a key strategic victory.
A senior US official accompanying Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Istanbul said the talks should help the rebel National Transitional Council to prepare for power.
“It’s about how we are going to collectively help to prepare the NTC to govern,” the official said before the talks.
“It’s just a fact that countries are starting to look past Gaddafi. He’s going to go, and the meeting can be a useful place to take stock, prepare for that transition.”
The US hopes for an NTC “road map, which we hope and expect will be for a democratic Libya, an inclusive process that includes all parts of Libyan society”, the official said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, his counterparts Alain Juppe of France and Franco Frattini of Italy, and NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, were to attend the talks in Turkey’s largest city.
The NTC’s de facto foreign minister, Mahmoud Jibril, was also to join the meeting, where aid — military and financial — for the crash-strapped rebels was also to be high on the agenda.
France, which has played a key role in rallying support for the rebels, said a political solution to the conflict could be within reach. “We are meeting envoys (of the regime) who say to us: ‘Look, Gaddafi is ready to go — let’s talk about it’,” Mr Juppe said this week, adding that the contacts did not yet amount to serious negotiations.
The US, however, has remained unconvinced and cautioned about contradictory diplomatic signals from Tripoli.
“We are not persuaded yet that any of this is persuasive in terms of the red lines that we have laid out,” another official in Mrs Clinton’s entourage said, referring to an end to violence and the ousting of Gaddafi . The UN envoy for Libya, Abdul Ilah al-Khatib, was to brief participants on his recent talks with Tripoli and the rebels at their stronghold of Benghazi, a Turkish diplomat said.
Italy spoke of “maturing” ideas for a UN-mediated push for a settlement.
Diplomats have reported discussions on financial assistance for the rebels, mainly an idea to give them loans while using frozen Libyan regime assets as a guarantee.
Turkey invited Russia and China to join the meeting, but both countries refused.