BRITAIN has formally recognised the role Libya's rebel leadership can play in the transition to democracy in the country, ahead of a London conference today to support a new beginning for the north African state.
Prime Minister David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy yesterday issued a joint statement supporting the interim National Transitional Council.
The statement came as a Downing Street spokesman confirmed diplomats were on the ground in Libya and had made contact with the council.
He also made clear the UK government would oppose a proposal to allow Muammar Gaddafi to leave the country to live in exile and avoid trial for human rights abuses as part of a deal to end the civil war.
The move was put forward by Italy, which, until the pro-democracy protests broke out, had been one of the Gaddafi regime's closest allies.
A Turkish proposal at the London conference aims to broker a ceasefire between the two sides; until Sunday night, Ankara had blocked Nato from taking command of military operations.
Mr Cameron appeared to dismiss the Turkish suggestion yesterday, in response to a call by former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell.
He urged the Prime Minister to "do all in his power to prevent the endorsement of any proposals which would enable Colonel Gaddafi to regenerate the apparatus of terror and repression, which has sustained him for too long".
Mr Cameron replied: "It is important that, while there are such clear and flagrant breaches of the (United Nations Security Council] resolution going on, we should do everything we can to protect people and actually, as a result, that is actually driving back the Gaddafi regime."
The London conference, hosted by Foreign Secretary William Hague, will include representatives of 40 countries and international organisations, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, African Union chairman Dr Jean Ping, the Qatari prime minister, foreign ministers from Iraq, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, and foreign ministers from across Europe. The Arab League, Lebanon and Tunisia will also be represented.
Russia will not be represented, as its leaders have protested at what they see as an abandonment of the UN resolution in favour of a move towards formal regime change.
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Russia's suspicions appeared to be confirmed by the conference agenda. Although the summit will consider what should happen next and how international aid can be better taken into Libya, it will principally look at rebuilding the country after the war.
The statement by Mr Cameron and Mr Sarkozy suggested regime change was now the main aim, even though officially the Prime Minister said it was to protect the Libyan population from human rights abuses.
The statement noted the Gaddafi regime "has completely lost its legitimacy", while transition could include the "Interim National Transitional Council, the pioneering role of which we recognise, the civil society leaders as well as all those prepared to join the process of transition to democracy".
The council had already been recognised by France and, in a statement to MPs, Mr Cameron said there were good reasons for the UK government to work with it, too. "I think the fact that it is interim, transitional and national and not a sectarian government is a good thing," he said.
But he denied there was a formal policy of active regime change, after a number of MPs, including Tory Richard Ottaway and Labour's David Winnick, pushed him to explain what was the end-game for the coalition.
He was also pressed on the issue by Labour leader Ed Miliband. "Now that the rebels are advancing, can you assure us that efforts are being made to remind them also of their own humanitarian obligations to respect human rights and protect civilians at all times?" he asked
Mr Miliband pointed out the UN resolution was aimed at protecting the Libyan people and "not choosing the Libyan government".
To scepticism from some on both sides of the House, Mr Cameron insisted the policy "has not changed".
However, he did call on the UN to take the lead in rebuilding Libya, saying it should be "firmly in the driving seat" on post-conflict planning.
"I really think they should be gripping this emerging picture and working with those agencies that have managed to get through to places like Misrata and Ajdabiya and elsewhere," the Prime Minister said.
On recognition of the rebels, he said: "We are actually now in proper contact with the rebels and a Foreign Office official is now having proper discussions with them, which I think is vital as we need to get to know and work with them and make these points with them."As these political events unfolded, Libyan rebels appeared to be making massive gains as they moved westwards towards Tripoli.
Emboldened by western-led air strikes against Gaddafi's troops, the rebels took the town of Nawfaliyah and moved towards Sirte, the Libyan leader's home town and an important military base, in the sixth week of an uprising against his 41-year rule.
Meanwhile, Gaddafi's troops were patrolling an area near the centre of Misrata after shelling the previously rebel-controlled city for days. The government claimed it had "liberated" Misrata and declared a ceasefire there. However, this was unconfirmed.
Earlier, Mr Cameron had admitted the situation in Misrata "was extremely grave", and it was clear Nato operations would be directed at supporting the rebels there.