France formally recognises Libyan rebels' authority
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In a major diplomatic victory for the Libyan opposition, France has become the first country to formally recognise Libya’s rebel leadership, pledging to exchange ambassadors between Paris and the Libyan opposition stronghold of Benghazi.
France became the first country to formally recognize the Libyan opposition – the Interim Transitional National Council – as legitimate representatives of the Libyan people on Thursday, pledging to exchange ambassadors with the country’s newly created transitional council in a major diplomatic victory for the Libyan opposition.
The announcement followed a meeting between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and two representatives of Libya’s Interim Transitional National Council in Paris Thursday
Speaking to reporters at the Elysée presidential palace in Paris, Ali al Issawi, a former Libyan ambassador to India who quit his post last month, announced that, “France recognises the National Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people.
"There will be an exchange of ambassadors between Paris and Benghazi," he added, referring to the eastern Libyan city that has emerged as a rebel stronghold over the past few weeks.
The recognition comes as European Union foreign ministers meet in Brussels Thursday and defense ministers of NATO’s 28 member states also gathered in the Belgian capital to consider the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya.
Ahead of the Brussels meeting, AFP reported that Sarkozy would propose “targeted airstrikes” in Libya as a way to end the violence.
Reacting to the news of France’s diplomatic recognition, Imane Boughaighis, media organizer for Libya’s Interim Transitional National Council, said the Libyan people were “very grateful” to the French government.
“We thank the French government and the people of Libya will never forget that they (the French government) were the first country to recognize us and they stood with us in our difficult time.”
In Benghazi, people gathered near the National Council's headquarters, honking cars and cheering as some fired celebratory gunshot rounds, according to Reuters.
France’s recognition of Libya’s interim Transitional National Council (TNC) has taken other EU countries by surprise.
One unnamed diplomat said: "Should we engage with the TNC? Yes. But to recognise them straightaway, that is something we cannot do. We are surprised at France's declaration."
German Foreign Affairs Secretary Werner Hoyer said the situation in Libya “remained too confused to decide how we should proceed”, even if Gaddafi’s government has been discredited.
In response to a French call for targeted airstrikes, Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westewelle added: “We do not want to get embroiled in a North African War”.
In a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from Benghazi, Boughaighis said she hoped France’s formal recognition of the opposition would trigger a domino effect across Europe.
Diplomatic dominoes or diplomatic tit-for-tat?
In a sign of a likely diplomatic tit-for-tat between Paris and Tripoli, the official Libyan news agency Jana quoted an unnamed foreign ministry official as saying Libya “will think about severing its relations with France because of information being circulated about France's damaging intervention in Libya's internal affairs.”
When asked whether Italy would follow France’s example, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said his government would seek the opinion of other European countries before deciding whether to recognise Libyan rebels as the country's legitimate representatives.
"That's a decision by a single government," Berlusconi told a news conference Thursday. "I think it's better for us to listen to the stance of the entire European community."
The Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, underlined the point by saying that that Italy "will not participate in air strikes on Libyan territory”.
Italy, Libya’s former colonial power, is Tripoli’s main European trading partner, importing about 25 percent of its oil and 12 percent of its gas from the North African nation.
Hours after the announcement at the Elysée presidential palace, a British Foreign Office spokesman said members of the Interim Transitional National Council were "valid interlocutors with whom we wish to work closely".
Gaddafi in the image race
As the search for a coordinated international response to the Libyan conflict has gained momentum, embattled Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has also sent envoys to a number of European countries, according to numerous reports.
On Wednesday, the Portuguese foreign ministry confirmed that Foreign Minister Luis Amado had “an informal meeting in a Lisbon hotel with a Libyan emissary, on the request of the latter”. No further details of the meeting were revealed.
Portugal chairs the UN Security Council's committee on sanctions for Libya starting this week.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini has also confirmed that Gaddafi’s regime "is moving towards contact" with the international community after a senior Gaddafi aide arrived in Cairo Wednesday.