Libya’s opposition yesterday battled for military and diplomatic advantage against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s embattled regime, winning official recognition from France and hitting government forces with heavy weapons on the road to the capital.
France became the first country to recognize Libya’s opposition national council and would send an ambassador to the rebel-held city of Benghazi, officials on both sides said.
“France has recognized the national transition council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people,” one of the council’s envoys, Ali al-Issawi, told reporters after meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
“On the basis of this recognition, we are going to open a diplomatic mission, that is our own embassy in Paris, and an ambassador from France will be sent to Benghazi,” he said.
“This ambassador will be in Benghazi for a transition period before returning to Tripoli,” he said.
His statement was confirmed by a French presidential official.
Sarkozy was the first head of state to meet with the Libyan opposition. His talks came on the eve of an emergency EU summit in Brussels at which he was expected to propose major measures to resolve the Libyan crisis.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and European lawmakers met the two opposition envoys this week, but Ashton hesitated to recognize the council immediately.
France along with Britain is working at the UN on a possible resolution for a no-fly zone over Libya.
Meanwhile, the international Red Cross said dozens of civilians had been wounded or killed in recent days in grueling battles between Qaddafi’s army and the opposition movement trying to oust him.
The fighting intensified on the main front line between the Mediterranean oil port of Ras Lanouf and the city of Bin Jawwad, where the rebels appeared to be have established better supply lines bringing heavy weapons like multiple-rocket launcher trucks and small tanks to the battle.
Youssef Fittori, a major in the opposition force, said a mix of defectors from Qaddafi’s special forces and civilian rebels were fighting government forces about 19km west of Ras Lanouf on the main coastal road to Bin Jawwad.
“Today, God willing, we will take Bin Jawwad. We are moving forward,” he said.
Red Cross president Jakob Kellenberger said local doctors over the past few days saw a sharp increase in casualties arriving at hospitals in Ajdabiya, in the rebel-held east, and Misrata, in government territory.
Both places saw heavy fighting and air strikes, he said.
Kellenberger said 40 patients were treated for serious injuries in Misrata and 22 dead were taken there. He said the Red Cross surgical team in Ajdabiya operated on 55 wounded over the past week and “civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence.”
He said the aid organization was cut off from access in western areas, including Tripoli, but believed those were “even more severely affected by the fighting” than eastern rebel-held territories.
Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo reported yesterday that it lost direct contact a week ago with its correspondent who was covering the unrest in Libya, and the paper said it feared he had been taken prisoner along with another unnamed journalist and a Libyan guide.
The newspaper, one of Brazil’s largest, said it had been receiving until Sunday what it characterized as “indirect information,” indicating Andrei Netto was alright in the region of Zawiya.