US gauges Libyan opposition in Paris as allies call for swift military intervention
Monday, March 14, 2011; 8:37 PM
PARIS - Under pressure from allies and growing calls for military intervention in Libya, the Obama administration on Monday held its first high-level talks with the Libyan opposition and introduced a liaison to deal full time with their ranks. But it remained undecided about exactly how much support to lend a group it still knows little about while turmoil and uncertainty increase across the Arab world.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton held a late-night, 45-minute meeting with a senior Libyan opposition figure after discussing the widening crisis with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy, along with British Prime Minister David Cameron, meanwhile, stepped up calls for world powers to isolate Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi with a no-fly zone, amid diplomatic differences over how much backing to give rebels.
Clinton's closed-door meeting with opposition figure member Mahmoud Jibril in a luxury Paris hotel was shrouded in secrecy until it happened, with neither the time nor the identity of her interlocutors announced beforehand. Neither Jibril, an official in the newly formed Interim Governing Council based in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, nor Clinton appeared or made any comments about their talks. Jibril met with Sarkozy in Paris last week before photographers and journalists.
Jibril was introduced to Clinton by the administration's new point man for the Libyan opposition, Chris Stevens, who was until recently the deputy chief of mission at the now-shuttered U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. Also at the meeting was Gene Cretz, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, who left his post for consultations in early January and has not returned.
"They had a private and candid conversation about ways in which the United States can assist the Libyan people in their efforts against the Gadhafi regime," Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines said after the talks.
Although the meeting might have been a deciding factor in the administration's approach to the opposition no announcements were made after and the mystery surrounding it underscored the administration's lack of clarity as to who is who in the movement that has sprung up to topple Gadhafi from the perch he has held for 42 years.
Sarkozy has taken the lead in recognizing an interim council as Libya's legitimate government. The U.S. has yet to decide on such recognition but has severed ties with the Libyan embassy in Washington and boosted its outreach to the opposition while maintaining caution on a no-fly zone.
But France, which has angered some allies with its diplomatic recognition to the opposition, said it is important to act urgently against "barbarity" by Gadhafi's forces, which are using heavy weaponry backed by air support to reclaim rebel-held territory. French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero, speaking to The Associated Press, pointed to an "urgency" to act because violence against civilians was increasing in Libya.
Speaking to parliament in London, Cameron said that time was of essence in responding to the situation in Libya, and said NATO was drawing up contingency plans for a no-fly zone.
"Every day Gadhafi is brutalizing his own people," he said. "Time is of the essence. There should be no letup in the pressure we put on this regime."
In Washington, President Barack Obama repeated his demand that Gadhafi step down.
"We will be continuing to coordinate closely both through NATO as well as the United Nations," and elsewhere, Obama said, "to look at every single option that's available to us in bringing about a better outcome for the Libyan people."