Libya rebels to host French, US envoys as they bid for arms

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French and US diplomatic envoys were on their way to Benghazi late Tuesday, forces in the Libyan rebel stronghold said, adding that they were trying to procure arms from "friendly nations."

A spokesman for the rebel Transitional National Council, Mustafa Ghuriani, told reporters "it would be naive to think we are not arming ourselves" to match the weaponry deployed by troops and mercenaries loyal to Moamer Kadhafi.

But he declined to confirm or deny that France and the United States were offering to supply arms, saying only that unspecified "friendly nations" were backing the rebels.

He did, however, confirm that the US envoy, named by Washington as Chris Stevens, would be in Benghazi "hopefully today (Tuesday) or tomorrow (Wednesday)."

A French official in Paris, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, said Paris was making good on its promise to send a fully-fledged ambassador to Benghazi, after President Nicolas Sarkozy said France recognized the rebel council as the only legitimate representative of the Libyan people.

The ambassador was named as Antoine Sivan, a 53-year-old Arabic speaker. He was to enter Libya by road from Egypt, the official said.

Members of the rebel council said Sivan was expected late Tuesday in Benghazi, where a French security detail was already in place to meet him. The whereabouts of his temporary embassy were not immediately known.

France and Britain took the lead in obtaining a March 17 UN Security Council resolution on protecting Libyan civilians that has paved the way for air strikes on Kadhafi's forces.

Although UN sanctions passed against Libya prohibit the delivery of arms, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during an international conference on Libya held in London Tuesday that the ban no longer applied.

"It is our interpretation that (subsequent UN Security Council resolution) 1973 amended or overrode the absolute prohibition on arms to anyone in Libya, so that there could be a legitimate transfer of arms if a country should choose to do that," she said.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe also said at the conference that his country was ready to discuss supplying military aid to the rebels, even though arming or training the insurgency was not covered under either of the two UN resolutions.

"For the time being, France is sticking to the strict application of these resolutions. Having said that, we are prepared to discuss this with our partners," he told reporters after the conference.

Britain insisted it was no considering any supply of weapons. "We are not arming the rebels, we are not planning to arm the rebels," Defence Secretary Liam Fox told the BBC at the weekend.

The rebels have been struggling to match the firepower and training of Kadhafi's praetorian guard as their street protests have turned into an armed uprising.

That mismatch explains the ebb and flow of the front line in recent days. Coalition air strikes have forced back Kadhafi loyalists from their advanced positions in the east but a rebel advance on his hometown of Sirte on the central coast has faltered.

© 2011 AFP

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