PARIS (AP) — The head of Libya's rebel Cabinet launched a European diplomatic tour on Wednesday, hoping to project an image of a government-in-waiting and secure the release of billions of dollars in U.N.-frozen Libyan assets as Moammar Gadhafi's 42-year autocratic regime seems near its end.
In wide-ranging remarks about his country's future, Mahmoud Jibril laid out plans for the post-Gadhafi era, including forming a commission to draft a new constitution that would be subject to a national referendum.
The meetings come as the U.N. Security Council prepares to vote this week on a resolution that would release $1.5 billion in Libyan assets in U.S. banks that the world body froze as a way to crimp Gadhafi's ability to wage war on his people. That would be a start: Some analysts estimated that as much as $110 billion is sitting frozen in banks worldwide.
The United States and the European Union have called for the quick release of assets to help the opposition Transitional National Council rebuild Libya's economy, restore essential services, reform the police and the army, and pay government salaries.
Jibril kicked off his European trip by meeting with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, which along with Britain has been the major international power to take a leading role in a six-month air onslaught by NATO in Libya.
At a joint news conference, Jibril thanked Sarkozy for France's support in "protecting civilians" and appealed for more help "to obtain the unfreezing of Libyan funds so we can transform (our) promises into reality."
Earlier Wednesday in London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said, "We are engaged at the United Nations and elsewhere to pave the way for the unfreezing of assets, the assets that have been frozen for five months but which ultimately belong to the Libyan people."
As for the NATO-led air campaign, which has provided nearly pivotal support as rebels advanced into Tripoli over the weekend, Sarkozy said it would continue until "Gadhafi and his henchmen no longer represent a threat for the Libyan people."
He implied that the alliance would take its cues from the rebels.
"From the minute our NTC friends tell us ... that Gadhafi's clan is no longer a threat to the Libyan people, at that very minute, coalition military operations will stop," Sarkozy said, adding that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon would also be consulted.
Although the rebels claim to have taken control of most of Tripoli, the Libyan capital, skirmishes with supporters of the regime continue. Gadhafi, whose whereabouts are unknown, has said he will fight to the death.
Jibril said he'd heard rumors that Gadhafi was in Sirte, a coastal city 250 miles (400 kilometers) from Tripoli; or in southern Libya; or even abroad — but couldn't confirm any of them.
France was the first country to recognize Jibril's government. His trip also was aimed at preparing an international conference on Sept. 1 to discuss how the world community can help Libya move beyond Gadhafi.
Jibril was to travel to Milan on Thursday to meet with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, which has served as NATO's base of operations in the campaign and has strong economic, political and historic ties to Libya.
Jibril indicated the rebels still need help, saying the fighting wasn't yet finished.
But he said plans for the future were already taking shape — and his government was talking to the U.N. about sending up to 200 monitors to help ensure security in Tripoli.
As for the transition, Jibril said a commission created with members from around Libya would write a new constitution, which would be put up for a referendum, but he didn't specify a timetable. Once it's adopted, elections for parliament would be held within the next four months — and its president would be Libya's interim leader until a presidential election sometime later.
"The mission of protecting civilians is not over," said Jibril. "The other bigger and more fierce battle has not started yet: it is the rebuilding of Libya."
In the postwar period, a new army would be created, he said, and the National Transitional Council planned "to call on all those took up arms to join either the new army or the new police force that we will constitute in coming days."
Tentative talks also have begun on a second resolution to cover the U.N.'s mandate in Libya — which currently authorizes the NATO-led air campaign to protect civilians from attack, according to a British official, who demanded anonymity to discuss the ongoing negotiations.
One of the biggest questions facing the opposition government is whether it will be given access to funds frozen to punish Gadhafi's regime and cripple his response to the insurrection.
The U.S. and its allies have been trying for more than two weeks to get the U.N. Security Council committee that monitors sanctions against Libya to agree to unfreeze the assets. The decision to lift the sanctions must be unanimous.
Council diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because the discussions have been private, said all 15 nations agreed except South Africa, so the U.S., Britain and France decided to introduce a resolution instead.
"We expect it to have the necessary support to pass," a U.S. diplomat said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.
South Africa's U.N. ambassador was not immediately available to comment.
Sarkozy alluded to South Africa's reticence and said he knows "the story of President (Jacob) Zuma ... to listen to the aspiration of peoples to free themselves from their chains."
"I trust the statesman qualities of Mr. Zuma, who sees the situation and sees the hopes of the Libyan people who are demanding the departure of the Gadhafi dictator," he said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has said Britain hopes to release about 12 billion pounds ($20 billion) in frozen Libyan assets, though it wasn't immediately clear if any of that would be covered under the new resolution.
As nations — and companies — jostle for favor with the new rebel regime, officials acknowledged that Libya's opposition has forged strong ties with those who backed the campaign to topple Gadhafi.
"Many, many countries have been very resolute and strong in coming out and siding with the Libyan people from day one — and I include in that the British government," Guma El-Gamaty, a British-based coordinator for the National Transitional Council, told BBC radio. "There are other countries who have been very slow, and, if you like, only came around very, very late — countries like China and Russia."
He also said Libya was likely to improve its ties with the United States.
"Gadhafi's relationship with the States was very erratic," El-Gamaty said.
China, which abstained from the U.N. resolution authorizing force against Gadhafi's forces in Libya, said Wednesday it now wanted to take a role in post-conflict reconstruction.
Sarkozy said countries such as China, India, Russia and South Africa would be invited to send envoys for the Paris conference next week, attended also by TNC representatives.
Saket Vemprala, an analyst at the London-based Business Monitor International, said he believed Libya's incoming regime wouldn't likely restrict itself to current allies when it came to awarding new contracts, and may be open to striking deals with Russia and China.
"I think the most likely outcome is pragmatic dealmaking from the National Transitional Council," Vemprala said.
El-Gamaty also confirmed the interim government would stand by commercial deals with foreign companies signed by Gadhafi's regime. "They will be honored," he said.
Stringer contributed from London. Maggie Michael in Cairo, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Angela Charlton in Paris also contributed to this report.
- Moammar Gadhafi