Clinton: Qaddafi associates seeking to negotiate

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during a news conference at the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, June 9, 2011, following the Third Contact Group Meeting on Libya.
Pool,AP Photo/Susan Walsh

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday that she is aware of "numerous and continuing" overtures by people close to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to negotiate his departure from power.

Speaking to reporters after an international conference on Libya in the United Arab Emirates, Clinton said proposals from "people close to Qaddafi" presented to unspecified countries included the "potential for a transition." But she said she could not predict if they would be accepted. She did, however, stress that she believed Qaddafi's decades-long rule is nearing an end.

Her comments came in response to a question about whether she could confirm that Qaddafi loyalists were seeking a way for him to go into exile in an African country.

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At the conference, Libya's Transitional National Council was seeking greater financial assistance from country's backing NATO's military mission as they try to establish an alternative government to take over after Qaddafi.

Italy and France offered a combined $1.02 billion while Kuwait and Qatar promised a combined $280 million to a fund set up to provide transparent assistance to the opposition. The pledges came as council members appealed for urgent infusions of cash to keep from going broke.

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The total pledged at the gathering, while significant, fell short of the $3 billion the opposition group says it needs to survive for just the next four months. The council lamented that the world still does not understand the needs of the Libyan people after months of violence.

Clinton disappointed the rebel-affiliated group by saying that while Washington would boost its humanitarian aid to all Libyans by $26.5 million it is not offering any direct aid to the council.

But Australia and the United States also recognized the Transitional National Council as "the legitimate interlocuter" for the Libyan people, moving a shade closer to conferring formal recognition on the body that could lift hurdles to additional money.

Meanwhile, preparing for Libya's next phase will require a decision on what fate — exile, prosecution or some third option — should befall the leader and his family, the parameters for a ceasefire between rebels and remaining Qaddafi loyalists, and the creation of a viable political process that will ensure the democratic aspirations of the Libyan people, according to U.S. officials.

"Qaddafi's days are numbered," Clinton said. "We are working with our international partners through the U.N. to plan for the inevitable: a post-Qaddafi Libya."

Fathi Baja, head of political and international affairs for the TNC, and other council delegates expressed alarm that future of a post-Ghadafi Libya will be difficult without increased funding. He especially called for the release of what he said were $160 billion in frozen assets from the current regime.

"You cannot continue liberating the rest of the country while your money is frozen," Baja said. "You have more than two-thirds of the country liberated. These people need food, medicine, education, schools for instance. We expect 1 million students will go back to school after two months. How can we prepare the schools for them? Most of them are damaged."

Opposition Finance Minister Ali Tarhouni urged nations to allow the council to use frozen Qaddafi regime assets as collateral for loans to help.

"Our people are dying," he told reporters on the sidelines of the conference in Abu Dhabi. "It's been almost four months now and nothing has materialized so far. Our message to our friends is that I hope that they walk the walk."

In prepared remarks to the conference, Clinton acknowledged that the council "faces a serious budget shortfall" and "needs our immediate financial assistance." She noted that a group of U.S. lawmakers has come up with a framework to allow a portion of the frozen assets to be used to pay for humanitarian relief. She called on other countries to follow suit.

The U.S. said on Wednesday that the first shipment of Libyan oil sold by the council had been delivered to an American refinery and Clinton encouraged other nations to make similar purchases to help the Libyan people.

The focus on the eventual departure of Qaddafi's despotic regime comes even as the longtime leader continues to defy intensified diplomatic, economic and military pressure to step down. NATO has stepped up airstrikes on Qaddafi targets in and around Tripoli and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday called for allies not directly involved in the operation to do more.

NATO airstrikes rattled the Libyan capital Thursday morning, with seven thunderous explosions shaking the city. Concussions from the strikes, in clusters of a few minutes apart, washed over Tripoli from its outskirts. Rebels hold swaths of eastern Libya, although fighting has since become a stalemate even with NATO support.