Italy on Monday became the third country to recognize the opposition Transitional National Council as Libya’s legitimate government, and Britain said it would supply communications equipment to rebels battling forces loyal to Moammar Gaddafi.
Opposition leaders crossed paths with a Gaddafi representative pushing in Europe for a diplomatic solution that would allow Gaddafi or his sons to remain in power. Acting Libyan Foreign Minister Abdul Ati al-Obeidi arrived in Turkey for talks with that country’s government, just a day after he met with Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou in Athens.
Turkey and Greece, both NATO members, have said 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 . . . to end the crisis” presented by Obeidi in Greece were “not credible.” Among the cease-fire proposals Obeidi is believed to have transmitted was one calling for Gaddafi to turn control of the western portion of the country over to his sons, an option that Frattini also 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.
Essawi said that any action aimed at dividing Libya “is unacceptable, as is any policy initiative that does not lead to the end of the Gaddafi regime,” according to a statement by the Italian Foreign Ministry.
Italy’s recognition follows that of France and Qatar. The Obama administration has resisted recognizing the council, saying it does not know enough about the opposition.
U.S. officials have become increasingly resigned to the possibility of a military standoff on the ground, with opposition forces, under the protection of coalition airstrikes and a no-fly zone, holding the eastern part of the country while Gaddafi’s forces remain in control of the west.
Frattini also said that Italy will sent aircraft to the western city of Misurata, where rebel forces have been under seige by Gaddafi loyalists, to evacuate the wounded to a hospital ship. Gaddafi, he said, was also using “illegal immigration as a weapon,” threatening countries in the region with an influx of refugees.
About 260 people, including wounded rebel fighters, were taken out of Misurata over the weekend by a Turkish ferry protected by Turkish jet fighters and naval vessels. The ship stopped Sunday in Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital in the east, to pick up more wounded.
In eastern Libya, there were reports that rebels had retaken most of the oil town of Brega, the current front line in the seesawing battle for control of a stretch of coastal towns strung out between Ajdabiya, about 100 miles south of Benghazi, and Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte 253 miles to the west.
The Associated Press reported that women and children were fleeing the town as Gaddafi’s forces fired artillery toward the advancing rebel fighters.
“New Brega is under control of our forces, and we are mopping up around the university,” a former member of Libya’s air force, Lt. Muftah Omar Hamza, told the news agency in Brega.
In a statement to Parliament Monday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Gaddafi’s forces were “deliberately inflicting harm” on the civilian population, “particularly in the towns of Brega, Misurata and Zintan where the heaviest fighting is taking place.”
Hague said that coalition airstrikes against Gaddafi’s forces would continue “so long as the regime continues to attack areas of civilian population.” Britain and France have taken over the lead of the air campaign as the United States has begun to withdraw its participation. NATO assumed command of the operation last week from the United States.
Hague said that Britain’s National Security Council decided Monday to supply the rebels with communications equipment, but still declined to provide arms for the opposition.
He also repeated 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.” Kusa, he said, is not under detention and “has taken part in discussions with officials since his arrival, of his own free will.”
He said that government officials met Monday with law enforcement and judicial officials from Scotland who have asked to interview Kusa in connection with the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie.
“We will encourage Musa Kusa to cooperate fully with all requests for interviews with law enforcement and investigation authorities, in relation to both Lockerbie as well as other issues stemming from Libya’s past sponsorship of terrorism, and to seek legal representation where appropriate,” Hague said.
He described the investigations as “entirely independent of the government. They should follow the evidence wherever it leads them, and the government will assist them in any way possible.”
Encouraging defections of senior Gaddafi officials has been primary goal of U.S. and international sanctions and the coalition military campaign. 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. Any immigration issues will be considered on their merits as with any other case.”
For anyone already under international sanctions “who breaks definitevely with the regime,” Hague said, “we will discuss with our partners the merits of removing the restrictions that currently apply to them while being clear that this does not constitute any form of immunity whatsoever.”
In Benghazi on Sunday, passengers arriving from Misurata aboard the Turkish ferry, Ankara, looked drawn and exhausted.
“There’s no safe place in Misurata,” said Faraj Ahmed, 31, a doctor who was accompanying the wounded on their journey to Turkey. About 70 more wounded people were to be picked up from Benghazi.
The ship arrived in Misurata under cover from 10 Turkish air force F-16 fighter planes and two navy frigates, Reuters said, adding that thousands of desperate people, including several thousand Egyptians, tried to board there.
“There are bombs everywhere, in the homes, in the cars,” Ahmed said. “The situation is really bad. There is no food, no formula for babies.” Electricity has been cut off, he said. “Even with the airplane strikes” by coalition forces, he said, “Gaddafi’s people are killing people every day.”
Inside the ship, every cabin and lounge was filled with injured people. The smell of diesel fuel mingled with the stench of sweat as harried medical personnel rushed by rows of the wounded.
Some of the injuries were gruesome. A young man sat on a mattress on the floor, a gaping hole where his nose had been. A man whose legs had been amputated lay on another mattress. Many said they were civilians and had been sitting in their cars or walking down the street when they were attacked.
Correspondents Liz Sly in Tripoli and Tara Bahrampour in Benghazi contributed to this report.