Libya's frozen assets may soon be released

Local residents greet advancing rebel fighters on the outskirts of Tripoli, Libya, Aug. 22, 2011.
AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev

Last Updated 3:04 p.m. ET

LONDON - As Libyan rebels gained further traction in Tripoli, world leaders have been quick to voice their support and urge long-time leader Muammar Qaddafi to step down.

U.S. President Barack Obama said the international community has worked with the National Transitional Council to prepare for a post-Qaddafi Libya for months and promised to continue working with the group.

But perhaps more important than the moral support from the international community is the material support the rebels stand to gain: Libyan assets overseas.

Reports of the amount of Libyan government assets held overseas range from $100 billion to $150 billion.

A Treasury Department official told Reuters that while the United States' unilateral sanctions against Libya will remain in place for now, the Obama administration is looking into a legal frameworks making some frozen government assets available to the TNC.

The U.S. State Department said Libyan assets in the United States amount to approximately $30 billion, though only about 10 percent of that is in cash. The majority is in non-liquid assets, such a property.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said today that Britain "soon will be able to release frozen assets that belong to the Libyan people" - which had been held owing to international sanctions against the Qaddafi regime - to help the country's rebels establish order.

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The European Union said on Monday that it also stands ready to help Libya's interim administration carry out reforms in the future.

"The first thing we need to do is send a team in to appraise the needs of the authorities," spokesman Michael Mann said. "The sort of thing we could offer ... is humanitarian assistance, support for democratization, help set up elections, institution-building and help with the economy."

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However, Mann said that the European Union's sanctions against the Libyan regime, including freezing the assets of the government and of state-run firms, will remain in force for the time being. "As soon as we judge that the time is right to help the population, we will change them," he said.

Security officials will have to assess the situation on the ground before the EU moves forward on the lifting of sanctions and providing more assistance, he said.

With events unfolding quickly and clashes reported Monday near Qaddafi's compound in Tripoli, leaders across the globe urged Qaddafi to avoid a bloodbath of his own people and turn himself in to the International Criminal Court.

"The time is up," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Monday. "There is no alternative to surrendering and handing himself in to justice."

"If Qaddafi keeps inciting a civil war, he alone will be responsible for a dramatic bloodbath that we must all try to avert," Frattini told Sky Italia.

France, whose military effort was central to the NATO campaign in Libya — welcomed the rebels' advances. President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement Sunday evening that Qaddafi should "avoid inflicting any more unnecessary suffering on his people by renouncing without delay what is left of his power and by immediately ordering the forces that are still loyal to him to cease fire."

Poland, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, issued a statement saying it "welcomes the end" of Qaddafi's rule.

The comments were echoed in Berlin, where German vice chancellor and Economy Minister Philipp Roesler told reporters: "I hope very much that Qaddafi will be found very quickly, will be caught, and then handed over to the international court, brought very quickly to the Hague."

The International Criminal Court has indicted Qaddafi on charges of crime against humanity, along with one of his sons, Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, and Libya's intelligence chief. Seif Qaddafi was arrested by rebel forces, while another one of Qaddafi's sons was kept under house arrest.

Frattini said there was no longer room for mediation, including allowing Qaddafi to go into exile or remain in Libya but relinquish power — as had been suggested at various points during the past five months of fighting. NATO began airstrikes in Libya under a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for the protection of civilians.

South Africa — which has criticized the NATO bombing and led failed African Union efforts to mediate between the rebels and Qaddafi — insisted it had sent no planes to Libya to evacuate Qaddafi. It said it had received no request from him for asylum, and was involved in no efforts to extricate him.

"I'm quite amazed that there's even an insinuation that we are facilitating evacuation of anyone," said Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. She said that "for sure, he will not ask to come here" and noted that South Africa is an International Criminal Court member — in an apparent implication that South Africa would have to arrest Qaddafi if he arrived there.

The government of Malta, a tiny Mediterranean island close to north Africa, has also denied reports that Qaddafi was headed there.

Outside of the country, Libyan expatriates celebrated what they felt was already the end of the regime.

In Ankara, the Turkish capital, dozens of Libyans flocked to the embassy to celebrate the rebels' seizing much of Tripoli. They removed the Qaddafi regime's green flag from a mast and replaced it with the rebels' tricolor one. They grabbed Qaddafi posters from inside the building, smashed or set them on fire as the embassy staff watched. The group, which included women and children, then proceeded to chant and dance as they waved the rebels' flags.

A similar scene occurred in Malta, where some 200 Libyans entered the Libyan embassy on Sunday to hoist the Libyan independence flag while setting fire to pictures of Qaddafi and his green flag. The celebrations continued through the night and were still on Monday morning.

"The celebrations we currently see in Libya, and not least in the streets of Tripoli, all point in one direction: the Libyan people's struggle for freedom has gone into the playoffs," said Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen of Denmark. "It is crucial that the final phase is handled in a dignified manner and that the (opposition) National Transitional Council remains united to manage the transition toward the holding of free elections."

In Russia, Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the State Duma's international affairs committee, told the Interfax news agency that "the situation for Gaddafi has passed the point of no return."

Moscow has denounced the NATO bombing of forces loyal to Qaddafi, and kept up that criticism Monday. Kosachev called NATO's airstrikes in Sunday night's assault on Tripoli "regrettable" and said this "will cast doubts on the legitimacy of current and future events in the country."