British, French leaders visit Libya

September 15, 2011 - 7:05 AM
Mideast Libya

Rebel fighters pose for journalists at a checkpoint at the northern gate of Bani Walid, Libya, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011. Libyan fighters are signing up for a final assault on one of the last remaining bastions of Moammar Gadhafi. The volunteers are pouring in by the dozens, coming in pickup trucks from cities as far as Tripoli and Tobruk, as a deadline expired on Saturday for the pro-Gadhafi loyalists holed up inside the town of Bani Walid to surrender. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Libyans applauded as British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Thursday became the first world leaders to travel to Libya since revolutionary forces seized the capital.

The visit was a major endorsement for Libya's new rulers as they struggle to form a government despite continued fighting in areas still loyal to Moammar Gadhafi.

Britain and France led international support for the rebellion and their countries were major contributors to NATO airstrikes that helped turn the tide in favor of the opposition.

NATO forces continued to go after the holdout loyalist forces. Airstrikes hit targets 24 targets on Wednesday, including several radar systems and surface-to-air missile systems near the three main strongholds of Gadhafi's supporters — his hometown of Sirte, Bani Walid and Sabha — as well as smaller holdouts Waddan and Zillah, the alliance said.

Arriving at Tripoli's airport in a French plane, Cameron and Sarkozy were greeted by leaders from the National Transitional Council, the closest thing Libya has to a functioning government. Security was tight in the coastal capital, with Apache helicopters buzzing over the Mediterranean Sea.

Several Libyans clapped and reached out to touch the British and French leaders as they walked toward a hospital, where they met with amputees and other patients who were injured in the fight against Gadhafi. Doctors, nurses and other staff also offered a round of applause and chanted Libyan freedom slogans.

France's finance minister said the visit was not about landing economic deals but about showing support for the former rebels who ousted Gadhafi.

Francois Baroin, speaking on France-Info radio, said the visit "is a strong gesture, it is a historic moment to go today to Libya." Asked whether there were economic arguments for the visit, Baroin said, "we are not at that stage."

France's focus is not yet on reconstruction contracts but on supporting the interim leadership and pursuing "the last pro-Gadhafi pockets," he said.

French news reports said Sarkozy was accompanied by dozens of French riot police, an unusual move that underlined the continued worries over security.

Despite the continued instability, Libya's interim government, led by Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, has been trying to assert control and establish international legitimacy. The NTC has asked the United Nations for assistance as it struggles to establish a government.

The Security Council is considering a new resolution that would establish a U.N. mission in Libya, unfreeze assets of two major oil companies and lift a ban on flights by Libyan aircraft, according to a copy obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press.

Britain circulated the draft resolution to the 15-member Council on Tuesday night, and Western diplomats said they are hoping for a vote by the end of the week. Diplomats said the U.S. and France were involved in the drafting, and veto-wielding Russia and China agreed to the draft.

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Associated Press writer Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.