Clinton steps up contacts with Libyan opposition

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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met a Libyan opposition leader here on Tuesday while Washington prepared to send an envoy soon to the opposition stronghold of Benghazi, officials said.

The developments on the sidelines of an international conference on Libya mark an increase in US contact with the Transitional National Council (TNC), from whom US officials say they are trying to obtain a "clearer picture."

However, the United States has stopped short of officially recognising the body, which it hopes will further the aim of a future democratic Libya.

It was Clinton's second meeting with Mahmud Jibril, who handles foreign affairs for the TNC, following a first on March 15 in Paris where she was attending a Group of Eight meeting.

Clinton was to seek Jibril's impression of the situation in Libya where rebels are beating back Moamer Kadhafi's forces amid 11 days of allied air strikes and a no-fly zone that have grounded his air power.

Since she last met Jibril, the TNC has "put out a series of what we view to be constructive public statements about their vision of a future for Libya," a senior US administration official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

The council has been pretty clear in their commitment to a secular, democratic future for Libya," he added.

In a statement Tuesday, the rebel body said it recognised there was "no alternative to building a free and democratic society and ensuring the supremacy of international humanitarian law and human rights declarations."

The US official said Washington is "still trying to develop a clearer picture, not just of the national council itself but also of the opposition military forces. But I think we're gradually developing a clearer picture."

He said, for example, the opposition has made clear pledges recently to conduct military operations in a "civilised" way, "mindful of the importance of contrasting their efforts with the brutality of the regime."

Gene Cretz, who was US ambassador in Tripoli until December, said last week that the council was "off to a good start" in organising politically, providing basic services and embracing a vision of human rights for Libya.

Cretz added the council has managed to send out the right message to the international community, such as welcoming the US, British and French air strikes that were launched March 19 to protect the Libyan people.

But Cretz said there remained legal hurdles to US recognition of a group that could one day replace Moamer Kadhafi's regime if it falls in Libya's weeks-old armed conflict.

The French government, followed by Qatar, has already recognised the TNC and had publicly called for council delegates to be admitted as full participants in the London conference of more than 35 countries.

Earlier Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague also met with Jibril, whom he had invited to London but not to the conference.

The TNC "is an important and legitimate political interlocutor and the UK is committed to strengthening our contacts with a wide range of members of the Libyan opposition who are working to create a Libya where the legitimate aspirations of its people can be met", Hague said.

The Foreign Secretary said he discussed the political and humanitarian situation in Libya with Jibril, and the importance of protecting civilians.

Meanwhile, Chris Stevens, the US special envoy to the opposition, will travel to Benghazi "sometime quite soon" to establish a "systematic channel" with groups seeking to oust Kadhafi, the US official said.

© 2011 AFP

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