TRIPOLI, Libya — French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron were given a heroes’ welcome Thursday as they visited Libya to celebrate the fall of Moammar Gaddafi and pledge continued support for the nation as it rebuilds after four decades of autocratic rule.
They also vowed to help the victorious rebels in their hunt for Libya’s fugitive former leader.
Tripoli was under virtual lockdown for their arrival, with Apache helicopters buzzing overhead. But hundreds of people turned out to greet them in the eastern city of Benghazi, waving British and French flags and chanting anti-Gaddafi slogans.
“Colonel Gaddafi said he would hunt you down like rats, but you showed the courage of lions, and we salute your courage,” Cameron bellowed above the chanting.
The loudest cheers, though, were reserved for Sarkozy, whose early support for the rebels was widely seen as decisive in protecting Benghazi from Gaddafi’s advancing forces in March.
The French president, whose flagging approval ratings at home stand to gain from the rebel victory in Libya, beamed as the crowd chanted, “One, two, three — Merci Sarkozy.”
“France, Great Britain, Europe, will always stand by the side of the Libyan people,” he said.
At an earlier news conference in Tripoli, Sarkozy and Cameron said that NATO airstrikes would continue against key Gaddafi strongholds in what has become a loosely interpreted U.N. mandate to protect civilians. But both were at pains to deny that they expected anything back from Libya in terms of preferential business deals or access to the country’s vast oil reserves.
“This is a very important issue, and I want things to be very clear to all the Arab world,” Sarkozy said. “There has been no prior agreement or entente. There has been no preference given or asked with respect to Libyan assets or Libyan resources. We did what we did without any hidden agenda. We did it because we wanted to help Libya.”
Under Gaddafi, international business contracts were often handed out as rewards to friendly countries, but new Libyan leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil said that the new Libya would ensure that competition was transparent and aboveboard. He stressed that Western help had not come with any strings attached.
“But as a Muslim loyal nation, we will appreciate those efforts,” he said. “They will have priority in a transparent framework.”
Sarkozy and Cameron said they hoped Libya’s successful revolution would inspire democratic movements in other Arab countries, although they also warned the Libyan people not to use their new freedom to take revenge or settle old scores.
“This does go beyond Libya,” Cameron said. “This is a moment when the Arab Spring could become an Arab summer and we see democracy advance in other countries, too. I believe you have the opportunity to give an example to others about what taking back your country can mean.”
Libya’s rebels have been accused of reprisal attacks and torture against suspected Gaddafi loyalists as well as against black African immigrants simply because some of them fought for the old regime.
Sarkozy said he hoped young Syrians one day would have the same opportunity that young Libyans have been given — to build a new, democratic country. “The best thing I can do is dedicate our visit to Tripoli to those who hope that Syria can one day also be a free country,” he said.
Western nations have been accused of double standards for not giving Syria’s pro-democracy movement anything like the support they gave Libya’s armed revolutionaries. But leaders have argued that they lack the same international mandate to intervene more forcefully in Syria and that military intervention there could have major regional ramifications.
Cameron promised support in the hunt for Gaddafi and urged those fighting for him to lay down their arms.
“The message, I think, to Gaddafi and all those still holding arms on his behalf is: It is over,” Cameron said. “Give up. The mercenaries should go home. Those who still think Gaddafi has any part in any arm of government in any part of this country should forget it. He doesn’t.”
On the battlefront, officials said that rebel fighters advanced Thursday to the western outskirts of Sirte, Gaddafi’s sprawling home town. Information Minister Mahmoud Shammam said the rebels also were about to “storm” Bani Walid, another key Gaddafi stronghold, after having given residents time to flee.
In response to a request from Libya’s new government, Sarkozy also promised to call the government of neighboring Niger on Friday to urge it to hand over any senior Gaddafi loyalists who have fled there and might face prosecution. Gaddafi’s son, Saadi, is among those who have taken refuge in Niger.
“We have no reason to believe the government of Niger will not uphold the rule of international law,” Sarkozy said. “The leaders of the world have to understand: There is nowhere in the world dictators can have safe haven with impunity.”
Cameron said Britain would introduce a draft resolution to the U.N. Security Council on Friday authorizing the release of all frozen Libyan assets. A Downing Street spokeswoman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in line with policy, said the resolution has the support of all five permanent members.