Libya contact group in Turkey recognizes transitional council as legitimate authority

France says Gaddafi’s remarks indicate his isolation

European Union pledges to help Libyans

Libyan rebels concerned Gaddafi might use mustard gas

In a move that raises the stakes for Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, an international contact group has agreed to recognize rebel forces as the "legitimate authority" in Libya.

Western, Arab and African countries, plus international organizations, meeting in Istanbul on Friday, have agreed to formally recognize Libyan rebels fighting to topple Muammar Gaddafi, designating them the country's legitimate rulers.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the recognition of the rebel Transitional National Council (NTC) was included in the final declaration of the group to be released at the end of their consultations in Turkey.

The meeting also agreed on a road map that would see Muammar Gaddafi relinquish all power and military responsibility, and call a ceasefire. It also includes a plan for a transition to democracy.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the terms of the agreement were clear and involved the "departure of Gaddafi."

Clinton and her counterparts from Britain, France and Italy were among the representatives from some 40 countries and international organizations, including the Arab League, African Union, NATO and United Nations, who attended the one-day meeting in Istanbul.

Mahmoud Jibril, the de facto foreign minister of the NTC, was also present and was seeking both financial and military aid for the cash-strapped opposition.

A US official traveling with Clinton said the talks should help the rebels prepare for power.

"It's about how we are going to collectively help to prepare the NTC to govern. It's just a fact that countries are starting to look past Gaddafi. He's going to go, and the meeting can be a useful place to take stock and prepare for the transition," the official said, requesting anonymity.

Foreign Minister Franco Frattini of Italy revealed that Rome had decided to unfreeze some 100 million euros that would now be handed to the rebels and that a further 300 million euros would follow.

Frattini also said that the UN special envoy for Libya, Abdel Ilah al-Khatib, would be designated as the "sole interlocutor" between the Gaddafi regime and the rebels, based in the eastern city of Benghazi.

"Mr. al-Khatib is entitled to present a political package, including the ceasefire, and to negotiate with Tripoli and Benghazi to form a government of national unity," Frattini said.

He added that there was "no other option but that Gaddafi leaves. The question now is when and how."

Turkey, as host of the meeting in Istanbul, also invited Russia and China to join the talks, but both countries, critical of the NATO-led campaign, turned down the offer.

France's foreign minister suggested Wednesday that a possible way out of Libya's civil war would be to allow Muammar Gaddafi to stay in the country if he relinquishes power.

Gaddafi insists he will neither step down nor flee the country he has led for four decades. With the NATO-led air campaign against Gaddafi's forces entering its fifth month and the fighting in a stalemate, the international community is seeking exit strategies.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy met in Paris on Wednesday with three rebel leaders from the western port city of Misrata who are seeking aid and arms to move toward Tripoli. Sarkozy announced no specific measures in response.

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France wants to keep "a very close link" with the rebels "to see how we can help."

Asked whether Gaddafi could stay in Libya under house arrest, for example, Juppe said on LCI television Wednesday: "One of the hypotheses that is envisaged is that he stays in Libya, on one condition ... that he clearly steps aside from Libya's political life. This is what we are waiting for before launching a political process."

The rebels initially insisted that Gaddafi leave the country, and one of those who met Wednesday with Sarkozy maintained that view — while others are not ruling out the possibility that he could stay in Libya if he gives up power.

"I don't think there is a place for him (in Libya). He is a criminal now," Souleiman Fortia, the National Transitional Council's Misrata representative, told reporters after the meeting with the French president.

Misrata rebel military leaders Ramadan Zarmouh and Ahmed Hachem also met with Sarkozy.

Rebels and pro-Gaddafi forces have been locked in a stalemate, with the rebels unable to advance beyond pockets in the west despite a NATO air campaign against Gaddafi's forces.

Rebels hold most of the east, but have proven unable over the last week to wrest the strategic oil town of Brega from Gaddafi's forces.

Mohammed Idris, a doctor at the hospital in the nearby town of Ajdabiya, said 27 rebels were killed and 83 others were wounded Tuesday in fighting for Brega. That raised the six-day death toll to 60, according to Idris.

Rebel military spokesman Ahmed Zleitini said Wednesday that rebel forces had pulled back from Brega but still had the city surrounded in hopes that Gaddafi's forces in the city would surrender "to avoid bloodshed."

Fortia, the rebel representative meeting with French leaders, said the western port city of Misrata, where rebel forces pushed government troops out of the city center, is "the key" to taking Tripoli and "tightening the noose around this dictator and his lackeys."

"With a little help from some friends, we will be in Tripoli very soon ... a matter of days," he contended during a news conference.

The plan is to move toward Tripoli from Zlitan west of Misrata and then Al-Khums in a step-by-step advance, members of the delegation said.

"Their message was the following: what we did to liberate our city, we can do it to move forward toward Tripoli," said French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, who helped organize the meeting and has championed the Libyan rebel cause.

"If they (the rebels) have the means, they just need a few days to reach the doors of Tripoli. They are expected in the three cities before Tripoli by experienced fighters who are just waiting for them. So a few days will be enough," he said.

Rebel fighters have been making similar claims for months, while the battle's front lines have moved little.

Henri-Levy said Sarkozy listened to them but did not say whether any aid or arms were pledged.

France has played a driving role in the NATO-led campaign of airstrikes, mandated by the U.N. to protect civilians from a crackdown by Gaddafi's forces on an uprising against his rule, amid revolts this year around the Arab world.

Last week, more than 30 nations including the United States gave the Libyan rebels a boost by recognizing their National Transitional Council as the country's legitimate government, potentially freeing up billions of dollars in urgently needed cash.

The European Union (EU) leaders on Thursday stressed the need of political solution to the prolonged Libyan conflict following two-day talks with visiting opposition leader Mahmoud Jibril.

"The perspectives for a political solution and the post-conflict phase" was one of the focuses of their discussion, said Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council.

"I told Dr. Jibril that the EU is ready to help launching an inclusive transition process for a political solution of this crisis," said Van Rompuy.

Noting that a political solution "require a collective and coordinated effort, within and outside Libya," he said the EU will join hands with other international partners to "work tirelessly towards this goal."

Placing similar emphasis on a political solution, Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, said both sides are now working towards this destination.

"We are working towards a political resolution of the conflict which would result in the launch of a transition process in line with the aspirations of the Libyan people and respecting the unity and sovereignty of the country," Barroso told reporters.

The post-conflict phase was another important topic discussed by the two sides.

"We talked about the post-conflict era, how we can join hand to enable the Libyan people to lead in their own country," said Jibril after meeting with Barroso.

"We are getting ready to assist in the construction of a new Libya," Barroso said, "Our post-conflict assistance is being set up now, so we can start work from 'day one'."

The EU is by far the largest donor of humanitarian aid in and around Libya with a support worth 140 million euros (192 million U.S. dolllars), which Barroso described as "a tangible sign of our solidarity with Libyan people."

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Wednesday also met with Jibril, Chairman of the executive board of Libyan Transitional National Council.

Meanwhile, Muammar Gaddafi’s troops in and around the rebel-held western Libyan city of Misrata have been issued gas masks, a sign that the regime may be preparing to use chemical weapons, rebels told The Washington Times on Wednesday.

The regime is thought to have about 9 tons of poisonous mustard gas at a secret desert location near Col. Gaddafi’s hometown, Sirte, multiple sources in Libya said.

In New York, a special prosecutor for the International Criminal Court appeared before the UN Security Council to describe what he called “evidence” of “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilians by Gaddafi’s forces.

Rebels received what they called reliable eyewitness accounts from Misrata residents who reported seeing gas masks distributed to Gaddafi’s forces, said Mohamed, a spokesman in Misrata who asked that his last name be withheld.

“We have alerted the town to that fact and what Gaddafi could be up to,” Mohamed said. “We don’t have gas masks. We don’t know how to deal with this, but we will defend our city with our lives.”

Over the past week, pro-Gaddafi forces have retreated to the town of Zlitan, situated to Misrata’s west. The troops, which suffered heavy losses under a barrage of NATO airstrikes and rebel fire, are now being commanded by one of Gaddafi’s sons, Al-Mutasim.

“Al-Mutasim is just as brutal as his father and quite capable of using chemical weapons,” said Mohamed, the rebel spokesman.

Former Libyan officials, including Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalgham, who served as the regime’s ambassador to the United Nations, have warned that Gaddafi might use chemical weapons against the rebels.

In a meeting with a Libyan official in March, Ahmet Uzumci, director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, expressed concern about the status of Libya’s stockpile of chemical weapons.

The weapons are supposed to be destroyed in accordance with Libya’s obligations under the international Chemical Weapons Convention.

The Libyan representative, Ahmed Hassan Ahmed Walid, told Uzumci that “the situation regarding the chemical weapons to be destroyed remains unchanged and under control,” according to a statement from Uzumci’s organization.

Libya announced on Dec. 19, 2003, that it would dismantle its weapons-of-mass-destruction and ballistic-missile programs.

There is already evidence that the regime’s forces fired cluster bombs at a residential area in Misrata last month, according to rebels and human rights groups.

They said they also have collected evidence of crimes against humanity by the Gaddafi regime, such as the indiscriminate killings of civilians, including infants and the elderly, rapes of women and men, torture and kidnappings.

“Gaddafi has used every conceivable and inconceivable weapon against the people of Misrata,” said Mohamed, the rebel spokesman.