Libyan rebel leader Mahmud Jibril was headed for the White House yesterday as he pressed a diplomatic offensive buoyed by a British invitation to open a first foreign office and the breaking of the loyalist siege of Misrata.
Hours after rebel fighters seized the airport of Libya’s third-largest city, sending troops loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi fleeing down the coastal road toward the capital, Tripoli, Canadian and British warships beat back a naval attack on Misrata’s vital seaport, NATO said late on Thursday.
Jibril, who serves as the foreign minister of the rebels’ National Transitional Council (NTC), was to hold White House talks with US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.
US officials would not say whether US President Barack Obama would drop by Jibril’s meeting with Donilon, a practice sometimes used by the White House for guests for whom protocol does not dictate an official meeting.
Asked by CNN television what he expected ahead of yesterday’s talks with the US administration, Jibril said: “We need the recognition.”
The Libyan opposition, based in the eastern city of Benghazi, wanted Washington to recognize the body as “the sole legitimate interlocutor of the Libyan people,” he said.
Unlike France, Italy, Gambia and Qatar, the US has not yet recognized the NTC. Jibril told CNN he believed Jordan would recognize the opposition in the coming days.
“All we need is for the world to understand our cause and help us get our legitimate rights realized,” he said.
However, White House spokesman Jay Carney signaled that Washington, which helped launch the NATO military operation against Qaddafi’s forces but has since taken a support role, was not ready to grant full status to the NTC.
“If the question is recognizing the [NTC] as the official government of Libya, I think that’s premature,” he said.
“We think that the council serves and has served as a credible and legitimate interlocutor for the Libyan people, for the opposition,” he said.
Jibril warned earlier that the council was facing a “very acute financial problem” and needed help from the US administration.
In Libya, Salah Badi, who commanded the rebel assault on Misrata’s airport, said rebel positions were now only 10km from Zliten, the next main center on the 215km coast road from Misrata to Tripoli.
Canadian and British warships patrolling waters off Libya beat back an attack by an unspecified number of fast-moving small boats on Misrata port hours after the city’s airport fell to rebels, NATO said in Brussels.
The Canadian frigate HMCS Charlottetown and British destroyer HSM Liverpool joined a French gunboat not under NATO command to turn back the Qaddafi regime forces early on Thursday, the alliance said.
The attack came as rebels celebrated the breaking of the two-month siege of the city.