- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2011

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday said she will meet next week with Libya’s rebel envoys, as France took the diplomatic lead among Western nations and recognized the provisional government seeking to overthrow Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

Mrs. Clinton said at a House budget hearing that she will hold talks with members of the National Transitional Council when she travels to Egypt and Tunisia. It will be the highest-level contact between the Obama administration and the rebels since the uprising against the Libyan dictator erupted three weeks ago.

President Obama is also prepared to send humanitarian relief missions to the rebel-held eastern city of Benghazi “to engage the opposition inside Libya,” National Security Adviser Tom Donilon told reporters in a conference call.

In savage fighting in Libya on Thursday, Col. Gadhafi’s forces drove rebels out of the key oil port of Ras Lanouf, which the rebels captured a week ago. In an eye-witness account, a Western reporter described “fierce barrages of tank and artillery fire” as rebels scrambled back toward the east.

In Tripoli, Col. Gadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam vowed to retake the eastern half of the country.

“I have two words to our brothers and sisters in the east: We’re coming,” he told a cheering crowd of young supporters. “We will never give up. We will never, ever surrender.”

While the rebels were routed from Ras Lanouf, they were encouraged by the diplomatic recognition from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who supports a no-fly zone over Libya and targeted attacks on some key sites like airport runways to prevent Libyan air assaults on the rebels.

Mourad Hamaima, a former Libyan foreign ministry official who quit the Gadhafi regime after the Feb. 17 uprising began, called Mr. Sarkozy “courageous.”

“The rest of the European Union and the U.S. government should also take a positive decision quickly,” he told The Washington Times in a telephone interview from Cairo.

At the House hearing in Washington, Mrs. Clinton repeated the cautious position of the Obama administration, especially as other nations appeal to the United States to take action in Libya.

“It’s easy for people to say, ‘Do this. Do that,” and then they turn and say, ‘OK, U.S. go do it,’” she said.

She also said the Obama administration has cut ties with the Libyan Embassy in Washington. Libyan Ambassador Ali Sulaiman Aujali has denounced Col. Gadhafi’s bloody assault on unarmed civilians.

Mr. Aujali and Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham, plan to call for U.S. recognition of the rebel government at a news conference Friday at the National Press Club in Washington.

At a Senate hearing Thursday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said he saw no indication that Col. Gadhafi would step down anytime soon.

“Gadhafi is in this for the long haul,” Mr. Clapper said. “I don’t think he has any intention, despite some of the press speculation to the contrary, of leaving. From all evidence that we have … he appears to be hunkering down for the duration.”

Mr. Donilon said the administration is planning to send disaster assistance relief teams to the rebel-controlled east. These teams will enter Libya with the cooperation of the rebels and “can in no way, shape or form be seen as military intervention,” Mr. Donilon said.

The United States has also frozen $32 billion of the Gadhafi regime’s assets, which will be held in escrow “for the future of Libya,” Mr. Donilon added.

He said that the United States has been in direct contact with senior members of the National Transitional Council as well as other Gadhafi opponents inside Libya.

“We’re coordinating directly with them to provide assistance and determine the best ways we can support their aspirations and understand their leadership structures and their intention,” he said. “We want to hear from them about the situation on the ground, what their plans are, what their recommendations are.”

Leaders of the rebel government have written to the U.N. Human Rights Council, seeking to present evidence of the widespread abuses they said were committed by Col. Gadhafi’s forces, two sources close to the council told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity.

In Paris, Mr. Sarkozy shook hands with rebel envoys Ali Al Issawi and Mahmood Jibril at the Elysee Palace.

“We must now engage in dialogues with the new representatives in Libya, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.

Hany Soufrakis, a Libyan exile living in Egypt, said the opposition has received signals that it will be officially be recognized by Spain and Portugal as well.

The Gadhafi regime this week dispatched envoys to neutralize the opposition’s efforts to gain international recognition.

Col. Gadhafi has also been busy on the diplomatic front, sending his own envoy to try to dissuade Arab governments from supporting the rebellion.

Maj. Gen Abdul-Rahman bin Ali al-Saiid al-Zawi met in Cair with the Egyptian military government to urge it to oppose any effort in the Arab League or the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.

Another senior member of the regime, Mohamed Taher al Siyala, general secretary for international cooperation in the foreign ministry, traveled to Greece, Belgium and Portugal to urge the Europeans not to recognize the National Transitional Council.

Mr. Hamaima said the regime’s diplomatic offensive has been “a total failure.”

Col. Gadhafi’s envoys were rejected in Lisbon, Brussels and even the Spanish prime minister refused to take Gadhafi’s phone calls, Mr. Hamaima said.

“The momentum now is with the National Transitional Council. What is happening in Libya cannot wait. The people of Libya cannot wait,” he added.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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