Turkish prime minister visits Libya


Turkey's prime minister  is in Libya today, a day after the French and British leaders won a hero's welcome there for helping to overthrow Col Muammar Gadafy and in the midst of a fierce battle over his home town.

Tayyip Erdogan, on a North African tour to assert Ankara's regional influence, will be hoping to reap political and economic dividends from Libya's new rulers for his country's help in their struggle to end Col Gadafy's 42-year grip on power.

After nearly seven months of fighting, anti-Gadafy forces backed by Nato air power control most of Libya, including oil-producing centres and the capital Tripoli, which they seized last month.

But they have met fierce resistance in a handful of pro-Gadafy bastions such as the desert town of Bani Walid, the southern outpost of Sabha and Sirte, Col Gadafy's birthplace 450km east of Tripoli which they tried to take yesterday.

Col Gadafy's spokesman said he had thousands of supporters. "We are telling you that as of tomorrow there will be atrocious attacks by Nato and their agents on the ground on the resisting towns of Sirte, Bani Walid and Sabha," Mousa Ibrahim told Syrian-based Arrai television late yesterday.

France and Britain spearheaded the air campaign that ousted Col Gadafy, but Turkey - which had contracts worth $15 billion in Libya - backed it reluctantly and was slow to recognise those now leading the oil-rich north African state.

A Turkish ship did play a key role in rescuing civilians from the coastal town of Misrata while it was besieged by Gadafy forces, and Ankara has recently been vocal in supporting the NTC and provided it with $300 million in cash, loans and other aid.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British prime minister David Cameron were told their support may be repaid in business contracts with the oil-rich North African state.

Turkish companies with business in Libya are hoping the Council will honour pending payments once assets are unfrozen, and energy minister Taner Yildiz has said he wants state-owned oil and gas exploration company TPAO to resume oil exploration and production work in Libya if security is established.

That depends to a large extent on the fate of Col Gadafy who, wanted by the International Criminal Court, is rumoured to be hiding in one of the loyalist strongholds.

In Benghazi, seat of the uprising which early intervention by French and British jets helped to save from Gadafy's army in March, Mr Sarkozy and Mr Cameron were treated to a rowdy welcome, shouting over a cheering crowd.

"It's great to be here in free Benghazi and in free Libya," said Mr Cameron as he strained to be heard above the chants in scenes from the former rebel stronghold televised live across the globe.

The French president, struggling for re-election next year, beamed at grateful chants of "One, two, three; Merci Sarkozy!" while the two leaders, flanking NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil, held his arms aloft like a victorious boxer.

"France, Great Britain, Europe, will always stand by the side of the Libyan people," said Mr Sarkozy, whom many Libyans credit with making a decisive gamble, pulling in a hesitant United States and securing UN backing for Nato air strikes to halt Col Gadafy's tanks as they closed in to crush Benghazi.

Although Mr Sarkozy denied talk among Arabs of "under the table deals for Libya's riches", Mr Jalil said key allies could expect preferential treatment in return for their help in ending Col Gadafy's rule.

"As a faithful Muslim people," he told reporters in Tripoli, "we will appreciate these efforts and they will have priority within a framework of transparency."

Mr Erdogan, who has visited Egypt and Tunisia this week, has been holding up Turkey's blend of Islam and democracy as a model for the movements that have toppled longtime Arab rulers in Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli. He has already won plaudits from Libya's new rulers.

"We expect the world community to follow the wonderful support of Turkey, its leading role and effort. Turkey has done an amazing job," Aref al-Nayed, Libyan ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, told a recent Libya Contact Group meeting in Istanbul.

Other states which did business with Col Gadafy, notably China and Russia, have been concerned that their lukewarm attitude to the NTC may cost them economically. While Mr Jalil stressed a desire to allocate contracts on the best terms for Libya, and to honour existing contracts, he said some could be reviewed.