PARIS (AP) — Libyan rebels on the verge of driving Col. Moammar Gadhafi from power must secure weapons caches amassed by his regime and ensure they are not used to threaten the country's neighbors, the region or beyond, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday. She also said the fight against the still-defiant Col. Gadhafi must continue.
"We must see our military mission through to its conclusion," she said of the NATO operation to protect civilians that began in March. "Coalition military operations should continue as long as civilians remain under threat of attack," Mrs. Clinton said at an international conference in Paris to rally financial and other support for the rebels and the government they are trying to install.
The session fell on the 42nd anniversary of the coup in which Col. Gadhafi seized power. He warned from hiding Thursday that tribes loyal to him were well-armed and preparing for battle, hours after rebels hoping for a peaceful surrender extended the deadline for loyalist forces to give up in the longtime Libyan leader's hometown.
Col. Gadhafi's audio statement, broadcast by Syrian-based Al-Rai TV, came as the rebels said they were closing in on the former dictator.
"We won't surrender again; we are not women. We will keep fighting," Col. Gadhafi said. His voice was recognizable, and Al-Rai previously has broadcast several statements by Col. Gadhafi and his sons.
Mrs. Clinton said Col. Gadhafi and his remaining loyalists should concede defeat for the sake of the Libyan people and stressed it was imperative that Libya's new leaders ensure that Gadhafi-era stockpiles, including of mustard agent and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft devices, are safe.
She called on the opposition to protect the rights of all Libyans, particularly women and minorities, as it moves to consolidate its authority. She also urged other nations to assist opposition efforts to forge a democratic transition after four decades of autocratic rule.
"Libya's new leadership will need to continue to stand against violent extremism and work with us to ensure that weapons from Gadhafi's stockpiles do not threaten Libya's neighbors and the world," Mrs. Clinton said in remarks prepared for delivery at the conference that were released by the State Department.
"We will be watching and supporting Libya's leaders as they keep their stated commitments to conduct an inclusive transition, act under the rule of law and protect vulnerable populations — and that should include enshrining the rights of women as well as men in their constitution," she said. "Honoring these principles offers Libya its best chance at a stable, successful future."
Mrs. Clinton appealed for the countries around the world to follow the lead of the U.S. and Europe by recognizing the opposition National Transitional Council as Libya's legitimate government and give it the Libyan seat at the annual U.N. General Assembly session later this month. The United Nations also should authorize a mission to Libya should the rebels ask for one, she said.
"We should work to see that the new leadership assumes Libya's seat at the United Nations," she said. Russia, long a holdout, recognized the rebels' council earlier Thursday. Mrs. Clinton said the U.N. should allow countries to release tens of billions of dollars in frozen Gadhafi regime assets to the NTC and said the U.S. has completed the transfer of $700 million in such assets on behalf of the rebels.
That amount is slightly less than half of the $1.5 billion in frozen assets that the U.S. won agreement from the U.N. to release last week. Mrs. Clinton said the remainder would be released soon. The $1.5 billion represents about half of the Gadhafi regime's liquid assets that have been frozen in the United States. The rest of the more than $30 billion in frozen assets is in real estate and other noncash holdings.
Libya's ambassador to the United States, Ali Aujlai, thanked the U.S. on behalf of the NTC and said the money would go for food, medicine and humanitarian relief.
"Notably, for the first time in over four decades, the wealth of our nation's resources will be used for the benefit of all of the Libyan people," he said.
European nations are seeking the release of billions more in frozen assets that they hold.
Mrs. Clinton cautioned that "winning a war offers no guarantee of winning the peace that follows" and said the opposition needed to follow through on commitments to uphold international standards and usher in an era of inclusive, transparent and sustainable democracy.
Once the fight to oust Col. Gadhafi is over, she said, the international community should help the rebels demobilize and integrate their fighters into a single security force.
In a private meeting with council leaders Mustafa Abdul-Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril, Mrs. Clinton said the safety of the Gadhafi weapons stockpiles was "an urgent security priority facing Libya and the broader region," according to a senior U.S. official present for the discussion. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the closed-door diplomatic exchange.
Mrs. Clinton also told the Libyan opposition leaders that they must deal with the case of the only person convicted in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing and that the U.S. will be watching closely how they handle it.
Mrs. Clinton said that Abdel Baset al-Megrahi's release from a Scottish prison and the current status of the former Libyan intelligence officer are of deep concern to the Obama administration, two senior U.S. officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity to describe a private diplomatic exchange.
The officials said Mrs. Clinton made clear to the opposition leaders that the U.S. believes al-Megrahi never should have been freed from prison and that his return to a hero's welcome in Col. Gadhafi's Libya remains problematic.
The ailing al-Megrahi was released two years ago on compassionate grounds, eight years into a life sentence, after doctors predicted he would die of prostate cancer within three months.
An ardent Gadhafi supporter, he is now reported to be near death at his home in Tripoli, the Libyan capital.
Al-Megrahi's presence in Libya has led some members of the U.S. Congress to demand his extradition or jailing, particularly since rebels drove Col. Gadhafi from power last month and are now on the verge of taking full control of the country.
U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, has asked Mrs. Clinton to make the release of billions of dollars in frozen assets from the Gadhafi government contingent on al-Megrahi's return to jail.
The State Department said Wednesday that Mrs. Clinton would press the opposition on the case but would not link it to the assets, given the immediate priorities such as securing and stabilizing Libya.
The U.S. officials said Mrs. Clinton told Mr. Jalil and Mr. Jibril that they would have to "grapple" with the al-Megrahi matter and look for a "just and appropriate response" to American concerns.
The officials said the Libyans were expecting Mrs. Clinton to raise the matter and understood how much importance Washington attaches to it. The officials would not say if Mrs. Clinton demanded specific actions from the Libyans.
The December 1998 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killed 270 people, most of them Americans.