U.S. wants to give frozen Libyan assets to rebels

New money pipelines are opening up to help Libyan rebels determined to topple Moammar Gadhafi, with the U.S. saying it will move to free up part of the $30 billion it has frozen in Libyan assets and a score of nations pledging Thursday to start a new fund to supply civilians with food, medicine and even paychecks.

ROME — New money pipelines are opening up to help Libyan rebels determined to topple Moammar Gadhafi, with the U.S. saying it will move to free up part of the $30 billion it has frozen in Libyan assets and a score of nations pledging Thursday to start a new fund to supply civilians with food, medicine and even paychecks.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s announcement marked the first time Washington has indicated it would release some of the frozen Gadhafi funds to help the rebels, who say they need up to $3 billion for military salaries, food, medicine and other basic supplies.

Clinton said the Obama administration, working with Congress, wants “to tap some portion of those assets owned by Gadhafi and the Libyan government in the United States, so we can make those funds available to help the Libyan people.”

The U.S. has already pledged $53 million in humanitarian aid and authorized up to $25 million in non-lethal assistance to the rebels, including medical supplies, boots, tents, rations and protective gear.

The first shipment is to arrive in the western, rebel-held city of Benghazi in the coming days.

A U.S. official told reporters travelling with Clinton that the Obama administration was considering unfreezing some $150 million in the short term, though more could be released later.

Congressional approval could take weeks.

The United States has not determined how the money will be directed, but the official said it will go for humanitarian assistance.

Meanwhile, 22 nations and organizations meeting in Rome agreed to establish an internationally monitored fund the rebels can access to provide basic things like food and medicine. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, co-host of the Contact Group conference, said nations have already pledged $250 million in humanitarian aid.

It will be “an international fund in which nations can make their contributions in a transparent way,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said.

Britain has already provided $21.5 million (13 million pounds) and does not plan to offer direct funding to the rebels beyond that aid and non-lethal equipment — satellite phones and body armour — it has already offered.

Clinton said the U.S. supported the fund but it was not immediately clear if the unfrozen money would be put into that pot or be spent directly by Washington.

Mahmoud Jibril, head of the opposition’s Transitional National Council, welcomed the financial pledges.

“We are more than satisfied,” he told reporters. Jibril said he briefed the conference for the first time on a “road map” for the future of Libya, including plans for an interim government, the drafting of a constitution and parliamentary and presidential elections.

Clinton met with Jibril and other senior opposition officials on the sidelines of the conference, and the group renewed a request for U.S. recognition, U.S. officials said. The United States has not ruled out more formal recognition of the rebel-allied government, but it is unlikely to do so swiftly.

Italy, conference co-host Qatar, and France have given diplomatic recognition to the rebels, who are based in Benghazi. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini opened the four-hour closed session with a call for other nations to do so as well.

“This will help strengthen our Benghazi partners and increase the Gadhafi regime’s sense of isolation,” the minister said.

Clinton reiterated that ousting Gadhafi remains a top goal.

“We have made it abundantly clear that the best way to protect civilians is for Gadhafi to cease his ruthless, brutal attack on civilians from the west to the east, to withdraw from the cities that he is sieging and attacking and to leave power,” Clinton said. “This is the outcome we are seeking.”

Since the uprising against the authoritarian leader broke out in mid-February, the two sides have largely been locked in a stalemate. A U.S. and now NATO-led bombing campaign launched in mid-March has kept Gadhafi’s forces from advancing to the rebel-held east, but has not given the rebels a clear battlefield advantage.

NATO says its warplanes will keep up the pressure on Gadhafi’s regime. However, NATO member nations are increasingly realizing that airstrikes and other military action alone won’t end Gadhafi’s attacks on rebel-held areas, and that funding the opposition and working for his ouster could be the key to success.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told reporters he expected NATO’s military campaign to last “months.”

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen refused to “guess about dates,” saying only that the twin goals of protecting Libyan civilians and guaranteeing humanitarian aid would be achieved.

NATO’s campaign has reduced Gadhafi’s forces by 40 per cent, according to Frattini.

Conference participants applauded Jibril’s presentation of a political transition “road map,” Italian foreign ministry officials said.

The plan calls for an interim government comprised of three members of the Transitional National Council, three technocrats from the Gadhafi regime, two military and two security officers with “no blood on their hands,” a Supreme Court judge and other advisory members, Jibril said.

A national committee would be elected to draft a constitution, which would be finalized in 45 days and put to a vote by a national referendum under the auspices of U.N. observers. Four months later, parliamentary elections would be held, followed by presidential elections within two months, he said.

As a kind of dry run, Jibril said the national council planned to approach the United Nations “shortly” to oversee municipal elections in areas already under rebel control.

———

Alessandra Rizzo and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed.

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