ISTANBUL: The United States formally recognized Libya’s rebel opposition as the legitimate government on Friday, an important diplomatic step which could unlock billions of dollars in frozen Libyan funds.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced Washington’s move at an Istanbul conference which also agreed a road map whereby Muammar Qaddafi should relinquish power and plans for Libya’s transition to democracy under the rebel National Transitional Council (TNC).
"Until an interim authority is in place, the United States will recognize the TNC as the legitimate governing authority for Libya, and we will deal with it on that basis," Clinton said in prepared remarks.
Meanwhile, western and Arab powers began talks in Turkey on Friday aimed at finding a political solution for Libya that would persuade Muammar Qaddafi to give up power and end a conflict that could otherwise drag on interminably.
The fourth meeting of the Libya contact group, established in London in March, comes after reports suggesting Qaddafi might be ready to give up his 41-year rule if he could get a deal.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is hoping that a political solution to the conflict could emerge by the Muslim holy month of Ramadan which starts in August.
Dining with NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on the eve of the gathering, Davutoglu said the focus would be on "on steps for an immediate solution in Libya", a Turkish diplomat said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton were among more than a dozen foreign ministers attending the Istanbul talks, along with heads of NATO, the Arab League and other regional organizations.
Speaking in the Hague on Thursday, Rasmussen called on NATO members to provide more warplanes to bomb Libyan military targets, as the alliance seeks to keep military pressure on Qaddafi while protecting civilians from his forces.
China and Russia, two powers who have taken a softer line toward Qaddafi, were invited to the contact group meeting for the first time, but both decided against becoming involved.
No one appears sure whether Qaddafi intends to fight on in the hope of keeping his grip on the territory round Tripoli or seek an exit strategy that guarantees security for himself and his family, but he is not seen having any future role in Libya.
"Countries are starting to look past Qaddafi. He’s going to go, and the meeting can be a useful place to take stock of and prepare for that transition," one senior US official told reporters aboard Clinton’s plane before landing in Istanbul.
"That’s the way we’re thinking about this meeting: trying to see it as a pivot in this process."
Earlier this week, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said emissaries from Qaddafi’s government in contact with NATO members had said that Qaddafi was ready to quit, but the US officials were unconvinced.
"There are a lot of straws in the wind," a second US official said. "We are not persuaded yet that any of this is decisive in terms of the red lines that we have laid out."
The international community has told Qaddafi he must cease violence against his people, withdraw his forces and step down.
Any solution could hinge on whether Qaddafi, after stepping down, is allowed to stay in Libya or take refuge in a third country, regardless of an International Criminal Court’s investigation into crimes against his people.
The UN Secretary-General’s special envoy on Libya, Abdul Elah Al-Khatib, will report the result of his contacts with the Qaddafi government in Tripoli and the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) in the eastern city of Benghazi.
The contact group will also hear from representatives of the Libyan opposition, whose forces are struggling to make a push toward Tripoli from both the east and west.
The TNC has not held direct negotiations with Qaddafi’s side, according to Mahmoud Jebril, a senior member of the rebel council.
The United States has recognized the TNC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people but has yet to offer full diplomatic recognition — a step which could eventually unlock Libyan assets frozen in the United States for the cash-strapped government-in-waiting in Benghazi.
US officials say they now want more details on exactly what the TNC’s strategy will be for guiding the country to democratic elections and broadening its political base beyond its strongholds in eastern Libya.
A British-led team planning post-conflict Libya, has recommended that Qaddafi’s security forces be left intact in order to avoid errors made after the Iraq war.
Foreign powers want to ensure the oil rich North African country of 6 million emerges as a stable democracy rather than fall prey to ethnic or tribal conflict, or become a haven for Islamist militants.
Turkey and the African Union have proposed separate road maps aimed at establishing a ceasefire and moving through stages from Qaddafi quitting power to a democratic transition, and the contact group will seek to agree on a single plan.