Rebels travel world pleading for release of Libyan billions

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Italy plans to release £308 million in frozen Libyan assets, as Britain pressed South Africa to drop its opposition to UN Security Council moves to unfreeze almost £1 billion in assets.

Mr Berlusconi made the announcement following a meeting yesterday in Milan with Mahmoud Jibril, the leader of Libya’s rebel cabinet, his second stop of a European diplomatic tour to push for the urgent release of frozen Libyan assets.

Mr Jibril, who had visited Paris on Wednesday, travelled later yesterday to Turkey to attend an international meeting that discussed ways of assisting Libya’s opposition in the post-Gaddafi era and unfreezing the assets that the new Libyan new government will need.

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America’s deputy secretary of state Bill Burns, who led the US delegation, said the meeting in Istanbul “was characterised by an upbeat spirit and recognition of what our combined efforts have helped to achieve”.

He said the meeting’s participants, including representatives from 28 countries and organisations such as the UN, the European Union, Nato and the Arab League “recognised the considerable work that lies ahead, but reaffirmed the international community’s resolve to enhanced coordination during this transitional period”.

The Libyan opposition has said it needs more than £3bn in currently frozen assets to pay state salaries, maintain vital services and repair oil facilities.

“We are here for an urgent call,” Mr Jibril said. “There are high expectations. While the liberation of Tripoli is in the last and final stages, the battle is still going on. We need urgent help.”

Mr Jibril warned that stability and security were at risk if rebel salaries, unpaid for four months, weren’t delivered. Among the other urgent priorities, he said, were collecting weapons, rebuilding a justice system and national army, providing care to the wounded in Libya and abroad, and rebuilding power stations.

The UN Security Council, meanwhile, is preparing to vote this week on a resolution that would release £900m in Libyan assets in US banks that the world body froze to thwart Col Muammar al-Gaddafi’s ability to wage war on his people. Analysts estimate as much as £67bn is frozen in banks worldwide.

The US has been trying for more than two weeks to get the Security Council committee that monitors sanctions against Libya to unfreeze US assets to pay for humanitarian aid, but diplomats said South Africa objected.

In the committee, agreement of all 15 council member nations is required.

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The African regional powerhouse is blocking the release of Tripoli’s frozen millions to them, a policy which reflects Pretoria’s strong ties to Libya’s former leader that date back to the anti-apartheid struggle, and frustration that Western intervention, not African mediation under the African Union, has again proven decisive on the continent. South Africa has for weeks blocked a request by the US to the UN Security Council to make hundreds of millions of dollars in Libyan assets available for civilian and humanitarian purposes.

British prime minister David Cameron called South African president Jacob Zuma and they “agreed that Libya now has the opportunity for transition to a peaceful, democratic and inclusive government, and they discussed how the international community should actively and urgently support this process,” a spokesman for Mr Cameron said.

Mr Zuma has now pledged to support the release of £307m, and said African leaders meeting yesterday in Addis Ababa would discuss the unfreezing of additional assets.

British defence secretary Liam Fox said that South Africa must join others in siding with the Libya people, and believed there would be “huge moral pressure” on South Africa.

“They wanted the world at one point to stand with them against apartheid,” Dr Fox said. “I think they now need to stand with the Libyan people, help unfreeze their assets and allow their authorities to get access to the capital they need to rebuild the country.”

In Milan, Mr Berlusconi’s meeting with Mr Jibril started just moments after the release of four Italian journalists taken hostage at gunpoint in Libya in a raid yesterday. “We consider it a good omen for the future,” Mr Berlusconi said.

He described the planned release of £308m as a first tranche, but he indicated no time frame.

Italy has not disclosed the total Libyan assets held in Italy, Libya’s former colonial ruler and biggest trading partner.

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Any release of Libyan assets from Italy or elsewhere would require a UN resolution.

The Italian leader also said that the chief executive of the Italian oil giant Eni, Paolo Scaroni, would travel to Libya next week to sign an agreement with the Libyan transitional council to supply gas for vehicles and natural gas to make electricity to meet immediate needs.

Mr Scaroni, who sat in the front row of the news conference with foreign minister Franco Frattini, said afterward that the supplies would be repaid in petroleum when oil production resumes. Eni executives have said that would be about a year after the security situation permits oil workers to resume work at the installations.

Mr Berlusconi repeated Italy’s position that the next Libyan government include all elements of civil society, and that Libya’s rebel National Transition Council will not permit acts of revenge against those who remained loyal to Col Gaddafi.