- - Sunday, July 3, 2011

BENGHAZI, LibyaTurkey’s foreign minister recognized Libya’s rebel leaders as the country’s legitimate representatives and promised them an additional $200 million in aid during a visit Sunday.

The visit by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu signaled a further policy shift for Ankara. Turkey, a key regional power, initially balked at the idea of military action in Libya, but as a NATO member it is now supporting the alliance’s air strikes there.

Turkish companies were involved in construction projects worth billions of dollars in Libya before the February outbreak of an anti-government uprising that has evolved into a protracted civil war.

Meanwhile, Libyan rebels flatly rejected an African Union peace plan Sunday because they said it would leave Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in power.

“We have rejected it,” rebel spokesman Abdel Hafiz Ghoga said. “It did not include the departure of Gadhafi, his sons and his inner circle. We have repeated this [demand] on more than one occasion.”

At a summit meeting Friday in Equatorial Guinea, the African Union adopted a plan for negotiations between the warring Libyan parties.

On his visit to Benghazi, Mr. Davutoglu met with Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, chairman of the rebels’ National Transitional Council, in a heavily guarded government building in Benghazi, the rebel’s main stronghold in eastern Libya. He later addressed a news conference with Ali al-Essawi, who serves as the rebels’ foreign minister.

The Turkish official said his country recognizes the rebel leaders as the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people. Several other countries, including France, Qatar and Italy, previously recognized the rebels.

Turkey has given us political, as well as financial support and humanitarian aid,” Mr. Al-Essawi said.

Turkey already had granted the Libyan opposition $100 million in aid and promised an additional $200 million. Some of the money is to be used to improve the infrastructure of Benghazi and rehabilitate its airport.

“For us, the destiny of Libya is the same as the destiny of Turkey,” Mr. Davutoglu said. “I expressed our solidarity and commitment.”

His trip to Benghazi is the most powerful signal that Turkey, which has vast trade interests in Libya, is throwing its weight behind the Libyan opposition despite its longtime relations with Col. Gadhafi.

The foreign minister said he hopes the Libya crisis can be solved peacefully this month, before the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan at the beginning of August. The fighting has split Libya into a rebel-controlled east and a Gadhafi-run west.

Turkey has called on Col. Gadhafi to withdraw from power and pave the way for “democracy and transparency.”

A coalition including France, Britain and the United States began striking Col. Gadhafi’s forces under a United Nations resolution to protect civilians on March 19, giving the rebels air support. NATO assumed control of the air campaign over Libya on March 31. It is joined by a number of Arab allies.