Western powers tightened the screws on Muammar Gaddafi on Thursday, reaching out to his opponents and warning time is running out as leaders mulled military and economic responses.
As Nato and the European Union went into 48 hours of crisis talks on events in the oil-rich country, France became the first state to recognise Libya’s opposition as its rightful representative while Portugal sent Gaddafi a message to quit.
Foreign ministers from the 27-nation European Union kicked off a packed agenda of meetings on Thursday and Friday bringing defence ministers and prime ministers or presidents into Brussels to look at the prospects for military intervention via a no-fly zone, humanitarian aid and economic props.
As the EU adopted new sanctions targeting Libyan financial powerhouses, a source close to discussions told Agene France-Presse that French President Nicolas Sarkozy will propose airstrikes at a Friday EU summit on a limited number of points.
“Colonel Gaddafi is discredited, he must go, we must engage dialogue with the new Libyan representatives,” his Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.
Paris’ strong outreach to Libyan oppponents caught EU nations by surprise, with foreign ministers cautious in their response, diplomats said. Britain did not immediately follow the French move, but did describe the Libyan opposition as “valid interlocutors”.
Portugal’s Foreign Minister Luis Amado, who the previous day met a Gaddafi envoy in a Lisbon hotel, said he sent a message to Tripoli via the emissary saying: “The Gaddafi regime is over.”
The stakes are high, with oil prices flying and the prospect of a flood of migrants crossing from North Africa into Europe uppermost in the minds of many.
For the United States and its leading allies, surviving a political tightrope with the fast-changing Muslim world is a crucial priority.
“We do not want to get sucked into a war in North Africa,” said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on arriving for talks.
“We want to have freedom. We want to support peace. We have to decide carefully and wisely.”
The ministers were in Brussels to prepare Friday’s full summit, expected to also address a looming humanitarian crisis as well as announce a policy U-turn towards the southern Mediterranean following uprisings across the Arab world.
“We support continued planning with Nato Allies and other partners, including those in the region, to be ready to provide support for all possible contingencies as the situation evolves, including a no-fly zone,” said draft summit conclusions obtained by AFP.
Speaking to Nato defence ministers, alliance secretary general Fogh Rasmussen said “if there is a demonstrable need, if we have a clear mandate and strong regional support, we stand ready to help”.
Britain and France are lobbying for United Nations Security Council support for a no-fly zone. Washington wants any military action conducted under the banner of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, with Arab regional backing seen as essential.
“This should not be seen as foreign intervention. This is not Iraq,” said Finland’s Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb.
Washington “believes that Nato is the natural choice for any military action,” but at the other end of the spectrum, Ankara has described the alliance going in as an “absurd” prospect.
In Paris a French diplomat said that “alongside Britain, we are working on what could be done without Nato. The sight of the Nato flag would be provocative.”
Libyan oil output has dived by two-thirds since the crisis erupted, although the New York Times said Gaddafi has “tens of billions” of dollars in cash hidden in Tripoli, citing US and foreign intelligence officials. – AFP