EU vows backing to Libya rebels
Benghazi - EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton on Sunday opened a mission office in the rebel capital of Benghazi, as rebel leaders stepped up their diplomatic efforts.
"We are here for the long term," Ashton told a news conference at the Tibesti hotel where the European Union mission was opened and where she met Mustafa Abdul Jalil, head of the rebels' National Transitional Council.
The announcement came hours after Nato bombed Tripoli's port and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s compound.
The opening of an EU office to represent the 27-member bloc coupled with the vow of long-term support came as a boost for the rebels lobbying world powers to formally recognise the NTC.
Jalil on Monday begins a two-day visit to Nato member country Turkey, during which he is to meet President Abdullah Gul and other top officials, Turkey's foreign ministry said.
The talks will focus on "ways of improving co-ordination and co-operation in initiatives of humanitarian assistance that our country has undertaken for the Libyan people," said a ministry statement.
Meanwhile, Jalil has been working the phones in advance of a Libya-focused summit of the African Union in Addis Ababa on Wednesday-Thursday. Last month, the AU proposed a truce that was rejected by rebels, who insisted on Gaddafi’s departure.
Jalil called Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade and invited him to visit Benghazi and the president accepted, Wade's office said on Sunday.
Ashton called on Gaddafi, who has been at the helm of the north African nation for 41 years, to step down.
Wade has proposed the creation of a new constitution and elections organised under the authority of the rebel leaders, who he recognised as the "legitimate opposition". The Senegalese leader is in regular contact with Gaddafi, who has visited the west African country several times.
"The people of Libya have spoken about the future they want. I am here on behalf of all the 27 countries of the European Union to offer our support to that future," she said.
The European parliament has long argued for recognition of the NTC, which so far has been recognised by France, Italy, Qatar and Gambia, but Ashton stressed it was up to the Libyan people to decide who represents them in future.
She said the EU recognises the council as an interlocutor. "They are people with whom we have a strong dialogue."
The regime in Tripoli said Ashton's visit came as a "surprise" and that opening an EU office in rebel-held territory could be considered tantamount to the "recognition of an illegitimate entity."
"This will have repercussions on Libya's rapport with several EU countries and institutions," Libya's foreign ministry said.
It said the "EU alongside other members of the international community should contribute to the search for a peaceful solution that protects Libyan lives and reinforces Libya's unity and territorial integrity."
Ashton said "protecting the civilians of Libya is fundamental" and vowed the EU would assist the rebels on border management, which is of critical concern due to violence on the mountain ranges near the border with Tunisia.
"Too many people have died already," she said.
Just hours ahead of Ashton's visit, Nato-led warplanes struck Tripoli port and Gaddafi’s immense compound of Bab al-Aziziya near the capital.
"There were two raids on the port and Bab al-Aziziya," the residence of Gaddafi which has already been targeted several times, a regime official said about the strikes early on Sunday.
An AFP journalist heard two explosions just past midnight and a fighter plane flying over Tripoli at low altitude, indicating Nato's sustained air campaign against Gaddafi forces.
International correspondents were taken to Gaddafi’s residence in a regime-chartered bus but were unable to access the compound.
On Saturday, the Western military alliance struck one "naval asset in Sirte" – Gaddafi’s hometown - apart from some other military targets, said Nato.
The alliance took command of the air campaign on March 30 from French, US and British forces, who under a UN mandate launched air strikes on Gaddafi forces to protect civilians.
US President Barack Obama sent a letter to Congress on Friday, asking for political support of US action in the Nato assault, as he hit a technical 60-day deadline to get official congressional approval for use of his war powers.
The White House maintains its support role to allies does not merit a formal declaration of war as is required by the US Constitution.