LONDON — World powers agreed Tuesday that Moammar Gadhafi 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, the United Nations, NATO and the Arab League came to that conclusion Tuesday at crisis talks in London on the future of the North African nation.
“One thing is quite clear and has to be made very clear to Gadhafi: His time is over. He must go,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement. “We must destroy his illusion that there is a way back to business as usual if he manages to cling to power.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, however, 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.”
Hague’s comments suggest that the U.N.-backed coalition cobbled together to defend civilians from Gadhafi’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.
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 Gadhafi 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 Gadhafi associates to send a clear message to Gadhafi that he cannot attack civilians with impunity, Hague said.
He said the possible new sanctions will be pursued in the United Nations and regional organizations, but did not elaborate. Britain, Germany, the U.S. and Switzerland have already moved to freeze assets belonging to Gadhafi and the Libyan government.
In his speech opening the conference, Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain had received reports that Gadhafi 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.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the international community must support calls for democracy sweeping Libya and its neighbours, but 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.”
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.”
Libya Conference: www.thelibyaconference.com