x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Rebels say they are Libya's government as provisional council takes form

National Council in diplomatic push as two envoys are sent to Europe in campaign to persuade international community that there is a viable political alternative to Qaddafi.

BENGHAZI // Libyan rebels have launched a diplomatic offensive to secure international support for their quest to topple Muammar Qaddafi and gain recognition as the sole legitimate government.

Two Libyan officials who defected from the regime in the first days of the uprising, Mahmoud Jebril and Ali Essawi, have emerged with a group of rebel leaders to spearhead the diplomatic push.

The two men were in Strasbourg, France, yesterday meeting European parliamentarians and other officials, as European Union leaders prepared for an emergency summit on the Libyan crisis in Brussels tomorrow.

With their presence in Europe, the rebel envoys hope to put a human face on an insurgent movement so far lacking a recognisable leader. They also hope to persuade the international community that there is a political alternative in Libya to Colonel Qaddafi, who has ruled for nearly 42 years.

The Tripoli government was not acquiescing. Embarking on its own diplomatic offensive, it sent emissaries yesterday to Cairo and Brussels for talks with foreign officials.

Although the Provisional National Council received a boost yesterday when the Kuwait parliament urged Arab nations to recognise it as Libya's government, the unveiling of the committee has been hesitant. Most of its 31 members have not been publicly identified because they are from cities still under Colonel Qaddafi's sway. "We want to keep them safe," a rebel official said.

Publicly identified opponents of the regime, however, say the council's members are mostly secular liberals, businessmen, lawyers, judges and former army officers. The common thread - and the source of their credibility among insurgent forces - is their history of defying the regime.

Mr Essawi, a 45-year-old Benghazi native, resigned last month as Libya's ambassador to India to protest against the government's use of violence against demonstrators. Mr Jebril, 58, has spent years in exile for his opposition to the government.

The council's head, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, is a former judge and minister of justice. He was the first prominent political figure to defect from the government, announcing his resignation after witnessing the violence which took place in Baida, his hometown, on February 19.

Libyan authorities yesterday offered a bounty of US$400,000 (Dh1.4m) to anyone who captured Mr Jalil and handed him in.

Abdulhafiz Ghoka, the council's spokesman, is another of the many lawyers and judges on the council. A respected lawyer from Benghazi, Mr Ghoka headed the national lawyers' association for many years.

Some of the council members have links to the old Senussi monarchy, which ruled the country before Colonel Qaddafi.

Zubiar Ahmed Sharif, a descendant of King Idris, served 31 years in jail on charges of plotting a coup against the colonel, a term "longer than Nelson Mandela" served, one opposition activist in the Benghazi area said.

Five seats on the new council are held by women and five by young people, though the only publicly identified female council member is Salwa Fawzi al Deghali, a young Benghazi lawyer.

Libya's youth are represented on the council by Fathi Terbil, a lawyer who appeared in court for the victims of the Abu Selim massacre in 1996, when 1,200 inmates of the notorious Tripoli prison were killed by government forces.

Mr Terbil's arrest on February 15 sparked the protests which have grown into Libya's present tumult and combat.

The council's vision for a post-Qaddafi Libya is a secular one, with the military subordinated to civilian rule, said Hissam al Gheriani, although how it expects to reach that stage is unclear.

Council members have vigorously denied reports of back room negotiations with representatives of the government.

However, there have been some indications that they would be willing to spare Colonel Qaddafi from prosecution in exchange for his exit from power within the next 72 hours.

"The international community will have to excuse the confusion," Mr Gheriani said. "There is no fracture in the opposition. We are all looking at the same aim: we want Qaddafi to go."

rscolari@thenational.ae