By Joby Warrick,
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Western and Middle Eastern countries began opening the aid spigots Thursday for Libya’s beleaguered rebels, approving measures that will immediately send at least $1 billion to the opposition and promising much larger sums in the weeks ahead.
The cash infusion came as the Obama administration took a step toward officially recognizing Libya’s main rebel group, with the State Department declaring the Transitional National Council (TNC) “the legitimate interlocutor” for the Libyan people, even as Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi clung to power.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, addressing a meeting of representatives from nearly three dozen countries and international organizations supporting the rebels, vowed to gradually increase economic and military pressure on Gaddafi until he relents, clearing the way for a democratically elected Libyan government.
“Gaddafi must know that he cannot wait us out,” Clinton told a gathering of diplomats at the Libyan Contact Group meeting in Abu Dhabi. “There is no going back to the way things were. He must go, and the transition to a unified, democratic Libya must begin.”
Clinton said talks are underway with the rebel council on how to navigate the transition to a new government after Gaddafi departs, signaling increased confidence among Western officials that the autocratic leader’s time is running out.
“We expect to see Libyans coming together to plan their own future and a permanent, inclusive, constitutional system that will protect the rights of all Libyans,” Clinton said. She said the talks with the rebel group included discussions about “what more they would need once the transition occurs,” but she added, “There is not any clear way forward yet.”
The contact group, meeting for the third time since the start of the NATO-led air campaign against Gaddafi’s forces, achieved a significant breakthrough in approving a temporary funding mechanism that gives countries legal cover for providing cash to the rebel council. Shortly after the measure was adopted, Kuwait and Qatar said they would immediately deposit a combined sum of nearly $300 million into the rebels’ accounts.
France, Italy and Turkey also announced substantial new aid packages for the rebels, while U.S. officials said they expected Congress to quickly pass a bipartisan bill authorizing the release to the rebels of Libyan government assets currently frozen in U.S. bank accounts. The United States and Britain say they have been constrained by property laws from turning over Libyan money to a rebel movement that lacks legal standing as the legitimate government of Libya.
“Altogether, you start to see a growing amount of financial support that’s going to the TNC,” said a senior State Department official who participated in international discussions on aid to Libya. Clinton separately announced $26.6 million in humanitarian aid for Libyans.
The new pledges came hours after a senior TNC official made an impassioned appeal for international assistance, telling reporters, “Our people are dying.”
“If no concrete financial support comes out of this conference, we will consider it a total failure,” the rebels’ economics minister, Ali Tarhouni, said as contact group ministers met in private rooms in the palm-fringed Emirates Palace Hotel. “We are a proud people, and we are not begging. This is our money we are asking for.”
Despite shortages of cash and weapons, the rebels have enjoyed modest military success in recent weeks with the backing of NATO warplanes and helicopters. U.S. officials say Gaddafi’s military forces have been significantly weakened by the continued air assaults and a steady stream of defections by senior military and civilian government officials.
Still, Gaddafi has remained defiant, telling supporters in a broadcast statement that he preferred death to forced exile. Loyalist forces launched new artillery strikes Wednesday against Misurata, a town recently claimed by rebels, and his government lashed out against a report by an International Criminal Court prosecutor that Gaddafi’s troops had been ordered to rape women in rebel-dominated towns.
“It’s the same old nonsense,” government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said of the rape allegations. “We have always asked, time and again, for people to come in on the ground and investigate. These are old accusations against us.”
Yet there were signs that Gaddafi’s grasp on power has weakened further in recent days. Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, speaking to reporters at the conclusion of the Abu Dhabi meeting, said the consensus view among the participants was that the dictator’s days were numbered.
“It is no longer an academic proposition, but a real proposition,” Rudd said, “and it may be sooner than many people in this room might think.”
Correspondent Simon Denyer in Tripoli, Libya, contributed to this report.