Libyan rebels get diplomatic, military boost

Rebels fighting government forces in eastern Libya were bolstered on Monday by new diplomatic recognition and gains on the battlefield as a bid by the government to resolve the country’s crisis by replacing Moammar Gaddafi with one of his sons appeared to fizzle amid international skepticism.

Italy became the third country after France and Qatar to recognize the opposition Transitional National Council as Libya’s legitimate government, and Kuwait said it expected to follow suit in the coming days.

Acting Libyan Foreign Minister Abdul Ati al-Obeidi arrived in Turkey for talks with its government, just a day after he delivered a message from Gaddafi to Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou in Athens.

Turkey and Greece, both NATO members, have said that they want to listen to proposals from both sides on a way to end the violence. Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas said after meeting with Obeidi that “there is mobility, and there is a chance, albeit small, for a politico-diplomatic solution.”

But Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the proposals presented by Obeidi in Greece to end the crisis were “not credible.” Among the cease-fire proposals Obeidi is thought to have transmitted was one calling for Gaddafi to turn control of western Libya over to his son Saif al-Islam, an option that Frattini dismissed.

“Any solution for the future of Libya has a precondition: that Gaddafi’s regime leaves . . . that Gaddafi himself and the family leave the country,” Frattini told reporters after meeting in Rome on Monday with Ali al-Essawi, the rebel council’s foreign policy representative.

Rebel officials in Benghazi also rejected the proposal. “After the massacres they have committed . . . I don’t think it’s even conceivable” that the rebels would accept Gaddafi’s sons, said opposition spokesman Mustafa Gheriani.

U.S. waits, watches

U.S. intelligence agencies said that they viewed the proposal with skepticism and that it was too early to determine whether the offer was legitimate or whether any leadership change that keeps a Gaddafi in power would resolve the crisis.

“It could be everything from legit offer to stall tactic,” a U.S. official said. “Anything is possible in this regime. We have to wait and see if there is anything there.”

Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said it should be up to Libyans to decide their fate through mechanisms such as a referendum or an election.

“I appeal to the international community: Don’t decide our future from outside the country. Allow Libyans to decide our future,” he said.

It is not the first time the Libyan government has said that it would be willing to hold elections or a referendum. But the government has not said how or when such a process would take place, and it has made clear that Gaddafi would be expected to stay on as a figurehead for the nation.

The United States has not recognized the rebel government. U.S. officials said Monday that they were investigating a report that al-Qaeda may be transferring looted weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, from rebel-held areas in Libya to Mali.

State Department spokesman Mark C. Toner said the United States had raised the issue with the opposition government. “We’ve made very clear our concerns, and they have also pledged that they will look into it,” he said. “It may be occurring.”

The diplomatic activity came as the U.S. military officially ceded its leading role in Libya to NATO and stopped flying strike missions as of Monday night. Some U.S. ground attack planes, such as A-10 Warthog aircraft, Marine Harrier jets and AC-130 gunships, will be on standby and could continue to fly missions if the senior NATO commander requests them. The planes are armed with heavy machine guns that are particularly effective in and around built-up areas, where concerns about civilian casualties are greater.

Rebels retaking Brega

In eastern Libya, there were reports that rebels had retaken most of the oil town of Brega, the front line in the seesawing battle for control of a stretch of coastal towns strung between Ajdabiya, about 100 miles south of Benghazi, and Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte, 278 miles east of Tripoli.

The Associated Press reported that women and children were fleeing Brega as Gaddafi’s forces fired artillery toward the advancing rebel fighters.

“Now Brega is under control of our forces, and we are mopping up around the university,” Lt. Muftah Omar Hamza, a former member of Libya’s air force and current rebel commander, told the news agency in Brega.

Rebel officials also expressed concern about a mysterious explosion at a rebel-held oil field in Misla, about 250 miles south of Ajdabiya. The blast occurred after a four-wheel-drive vehicle was seen moving around the area, raising suspicions of sabotage by Gaddafi forces. The interim government is hoping to use the oil fields that have fallen under its control as a source of revenue to run its section of the country and to procure arms.

Assistance from Britain

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told members of Parliament that Britain was providing “nonlethal equipment” to Libya’s Transitional National Council, including tele­comm­unica­tions equipment. But he said Britain had declined to provide arms for the opposition.

Hague also reiterated that Musa Kusa, the Gaddafi government’s foreign minister who defected to Britain last week, was not being offered immunity “from British or international justice.”

He said government authorities met Monday with Scottish law enforcement and judicial officials, who have asked to interview Kusa in connection with the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Addressing others who may want to leave Libya, Hague said that “any who travel to the U.K. to speak with us will be treated with respect and in accordance with our laws.”

The U.S. government, meanwhile, has ended its freeze on Kusa’s assets after his defection. David Cohen, the Treasury’s acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said that the action “should encourage others within the Libyan government to make similar decisions to abandon the Gaddafi regime.”

Also Monday, Iman al-Obaidi, the woman who was dragged screaming from a Tripoli hotel after she told journalists that she was raped by Gaddafi militiamen, told CNN that she was free but living under virtual house arrest in the capital.

Speaking by telephone, she said she had spent 72 hours under interrogation after she was whisked from the hotel by armed security guards. Interrogators poured water on her face and threw food at her during the questioning, which ended after a medical examination proved she had been raped, she said.

“And when the test came, it verified that I was raped and tortured, and then I was freed,” she said, speaking by telephone through a translator.

Staff writers Tara Bahrampour in Benghazi, Karla Adam in London, and Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe in Washington contributed to this report.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for the Washington Post.
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