Cameron and Sarkozy visit Libya


Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron flew in to Tripoli under heavy guard today, to be welcomed by the new leaders the French and British air forces helped install in Libya, three weeks after rebel forces overthrew Muammar Gadafy.

The French president and the British prime minister, who jointly have taken credit for leading a six-month Nato campaign in which the United States took an unusual back seat, were met at their aircraft by smiles and handshakes from the two leading figures of the disparate anti-Gadafy coalition.

The two men, accompanied by their foreign ministers, were later welcomed with cheers from onlookers during a visit to a Tripoli hospital - a mark of the popularity their intervention has enjoyed on the streets of Libya after 42 years of rule by Col Gadafy, who remains a fugitive and has vowed to fight back.

Mr Cameron, keen to steer clear of public triumphalism for a policy of support that seemed to many highly risky, insisted that Libyans were in charge of their own country and that there was still much to do bring peace and democracy.

During talks in the capital and later in Benghazi, the seat of the February revolt that was to add Col Gadafy to the list of Arab autocrats felled by uprisings this year, Mr Cameron and Mr Sarkozy were to confirm offers of help for the National Transitional Council.

It is still battling Gadafy loyalists in a handful of areas and trying to assert its authority over its host of ragtag militia allies.

Libya's provisional government said today its forces had reached the outskirts of Col Gadafy’s hometown of Sirte, which is still controlled by his loyalists.

"It has been a major advance today," a spokesman Jalal el-Gallal said. "They are on the outskirts."

Until earlier this week, repeated attempted advances by anti-Gadafy forces based in the Misrata area had been blocked more than 50km from Sirte.

Sirte is one of Col Gadafy's last main bastions along with the towns of Bani Walid and Sabha. Towns held by Gadafy loyalists have proven tenacious despite weeks of siege. After a week of fighting, NTC forces at Bani Walid, 150km southeast of Tripoli, have been urging people to leave before they try to storm the town.

"There's still more work to be done, there's still a long way to go. But I think to show international support for the NTC ... it's important to be here," Mr Cameron said.

"Britain played a role which I'm very proud of, but in the end this is what the Libyans did themselves and I wanted to come and congratulate them and work out how we can help next, as they rebuild their country," he added, speaking at the airport.

After the airport welcome from NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril, the head of the NTC executive - effectively interim prime minister - the two European leaders were driven into the city in a convoy of dozens of vehicles, including some of the pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns that have been the symbol of the Libyan revolt.

Both men are popular on the streets of Libya, where "Merci Sarkozy" and "Thank you Britain" are common graffiti slogans. Both may hope to earn political dividends back home from what now appears to have been a successful bet.

But on the eve of their visit, Abdel Jalil said heavy battles lie ahead against Col Gadafy loyalists.

Western countries and neighbours are anxious to welcome Libya into the international community, not least so it can restart lucrative oil production frozen by six months of war.

Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan is expected in Libya tomorrow. Egypt's foreign minister, Mohammed Kamel Amr, is also due to visit. A US assistant secretary of state visited yesterday.

Libya's new leaders say the international community has been slow to release frozen assets; diplomats said on Wednesday Britain had circulated a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council to ease sanctions against Libya's National Oil Corp (NOC) and central bank, and hoped for a vote this week.

NOC chairman Nouri Berouin said that Libya would start exporting crude oil from the eastern port of Tobruk within 10 days and could produce 1 million barrels a day within six months.

But the failure to capture Col Gadafy, and ongoing fighting in and around besieged towns still firmly held by the ousted leader's supporters, are proof that a peaceful and prosperous future for Libya is far from assured.

The European Union yesterday demanded an end to arbitrary killings and detentions by both sides, and especially to vigilante attacks on sub-Saharan Africans and black Libyans, who are widely accused of having fought for Col Gadafy.

Col Gadafy has not been seen in public since June. In a letter read out on Syria-based Arrai TV he called on the UN Security Council to protect  Sirte from what he called Nato "atrocities".

"If Sirte is isolated from the rest of the world in order for atrocities to be committed against it, then the world has a duty not to be absent," Col Gadafy was quoted as saying.

His spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, speaking by satellite from an undisclosed location, said the 69-year-old leader was still in Libya, in good spirits and ready to fight.

"The leader is in good health, in high morale ... of course he is in Libya," said Ibrahim, who declined to give his own location. "The fight is as far away from the end as the world can imagine. We are still very powerful, our army is still powerful, we have thousands upon thousands of volunteers."

The need for Mr Sarkozy and Mr Cameron to visit Benghazi as well as Tripoli is a sign of the obstacles Libya still faces in transforming itself into a peaceful, unified democracy. The NTC has not yet been able to safely establish a government in a capital still bristling with militiamen from disparate groups.

The country is deeply divided. Many of its new rulers hail from Benghazi in the east, while the fighters who won the battle for Tripoli mostly come from towns in the west.  The NTC has promised to name a more inclusive government lineup within days.