Diplomats did not discuss arming Libya rebels

Libyan rebels jubilate on a checkpoint in Al-Egila, east of Ras Lanuf, eastern Libya, Sunday, March 27, 2011. The rebels claim that they have entered Ras Lanuf.
AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus

LONDON - World powers agreed Tuesday that Muammar Qaddafi should step down after 42 years as Libya's ruler but did not discuss arming the rebels who are seeking to oust him.

Top diplomats from up to 40 countries met for crisis talks Tuesday in London on the future of the North African nation, but British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters the subject of arming rebels simply did not come up.

"That was not one of the subjects for discussion," Hague said. "That was not raised at the conference and it was not on the agenda for discussion."

He added that Libya was under a U.N.-mandated arms embargo and that the restrictions "in our view apply to the whole of Libya."

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But speaking at a press conference following the summit, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton contradicted Hague, saying that the U.S. interprets the recent U.N. Security Council resolution on Libya as superseding the embargo -- allowing the U.S. and others to potentially arm the rebels.

But Clinton stressed that no such decision has actually been made.

Hague's comments suggest that the U.N.-backed coalition cobbled together to defend civilians from Qaddafi's onslaught is still hanging back from throwing its entire weight behind the ill-organized rebels, whose exact makeup and motives remain unclear.

But Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jabr al-Thani seemed to leave the door open to arms sales when he suggested that the issue might be revisited if the aerial campaign fell short of its stated goal of protecting Libyan civilians.

"We have to evaluate the airstrike after a while to see if it's effective," he said. "We are not inviting any military ground (troops) ... but we have to evaluate the situation because we cannot let the people suffer for so long, you know, we have to find a way to stop this bloodshed."

Qatar, which has recognized the rebels as Libya's legitimate representatives, also plans to help them sell crude on the international market. Yet while there has been talk of using Qatar to market Libya's oil for days, details have remained thin on the ground.

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Libya's production relies on joint ventures with foreign companies, like Italy's Eni SpA, that have evacuated employees from the country, and it's unclear how or when Qatar could help restart the country's now-paralyzed energy industry.

Still even the possibility of renewed oil sales from Libya would affect the markets.

While diplomats repeated their appeals for Qaddafi to leave Libya, there were few signs that the international community planned to apply any additional pressure on the Libyan ruler. Diplomats are considering more sanctions on Qaddafi associates to send a clear message to Qaddafi that he cannot attack civilians with impunity, Hague said.

He says the possible sanctions will be pursued in the United Nations and regional organizations, but did not elaborate further.

Britain, Germany, the U.S. and Switzerland have already moved to freeze assets belonging to Qaddafi and the Libyan government.

Hague said he believed the Libyan rebels were genuinely committed to democracy, but still sounded a note of caution.

"I'm sure they are sincere," Hague said, "but we can never be complacent about how events like this could turn out."

In his speech opening the conference, Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain had received reports that Qaddafi was pounding Misrata, the main rebel holdout in the west, with attacks from land and sea, and relentlessly targeting civilians.

"The reason for being here is because the Libyan people cannot reach that future on their own," Cameron said. "We are all here in one united purpose, that is to help the Libyan people in their hour of need."

Clinton opened her remarks to the conference invoking a meeting of international leaders in Paris a week ago.

"Since that meeting, we've prevented a potential massacre, established a no-fly zone, stopped an advancing army, added more partners to this coalition, and transferred command of the military effort to NATO," she said. "That's not bad for a week's work."

Clinton said that the coalition military action will continue until Qaddafi fully complies with U.N. Security Council demands by ending all attacks on civilians, pulling back troops and allowing services and humanitarian assistance to reach all the people of Libya.

Still, Clinton said, "We know that long-term progress in Libya will not be accomplished through military means." She told the conference that countries must work together, using political and diplomatic pressure to isolate the Qaddafi regime and ensure that Libya "belongs not to a dictator, but to its people."

But she warned that change would not be easily won.

"Under different governments, under different circumstances, people are expressing the same basic aspirations: A voice in their government, an end to corruption, freedom from violence and fear, the chance to live in dignity and to make the most of their God-given talents," Clinton said. "These goals are not easily achieved. But they are, without question, worth working for together."