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Europe moves to free UN-blocked Libyan funds on eve of Paris meeting on post-Gadhafi future
PARIS (AP) ' European powers stepped up efforts Wednesday to return Libya to normalcy after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi's regime, with France saying it asked a U.N. panel to unblock euro1.5 billion ($2.17 billion) in Libyan assets frozen in French banks and the EU preparing to lift sanctions on some Libyan firms.
Western powers like France, Britain and the U.s. are leading a push to release tens of billions of dollars worth of assets worldwide frozen under a Security Council resolution against Gadhafi's regime.
French officials say at least $50 billion linked to Gadhafi and his allies is believed to be squirreled away in banks across the world.
While Gadhafi remains at large, his 42-year rule is crumbling, and the powers want the funds freed up for use by the interim National Transitional Council ' a rebel group that toppled his forces with help from NATO.
France has asked the U.N. Security Council's sanctions committee to unblock about one-fifth of the euro7.6 billion ($10.9 billion) in Libyan assets frozen in French banks, a top official in President Nicolas Sarkozy's office said, giving the first estimate of how much money linked to Gadhafi's regime was in France.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said France expects an approval of its request by week's end.
Also Wednesday, an European Union official said a working group had given the green light for the de-listing of six Libyan port authorities and other firms from its sanctions list.
EU member states will approve the decision "very soon," said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity under standing EU rules. The 27-nation bloc has imposed sanctions against the Libyan ports and other companies plus asset freezes and travel bans on 39 people involved in human rights abuses.
And German Foreign Ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke said Germany has applied to the U.N. sanctions committee to have part of about euro7.3 billion held in Germany unblocked ' and expects an approval soon.
A senior British diplomat said a new U.N. Security Council resolution on Libya that would lift all remaining asset freezes and formally recognizes the opposition as the country's new government could be put to a vote next week ' once there's "more clarity on the situation on the ground."
"Gadhafi out of the picture would be the best clarity that one could have," the British diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss negotiations over the U.N. resolution.
Italy said it will reopen its embassy in Tripoli on Thursday, with diplomats, administrators and technical staff already en route.
Such efforts to turn the page on Gadhafi's regime come as Paris plans to host Thursday a major international meeting on Libya, aimed to showcase the rebel council and help end the divisions both inside the North African country and within the world community over the conduct of the six-month war.
Sarkozy and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain ' two of the most vocal and strong-armed backers of the rebels ' will host about 60 heads of state, prime ministers and top diplomats at the French presidential palace to help Libya's transition to democracy.
In the spring, as Libya's rebellion gathered steam, the Security Council passed two resolutions that froze billions of dollars in assets held abroad by Gadhafi's regime and allowed the NATO-led air campaign to protect Libyan civilians from Gadhafi's bloody crackdown on dissent.
But some world powers, including China and Russia, were hesitant about the NATO campaign ' with some accusing the alliance of overstepping its mandate with thousands of airstrikes on Gadhafi forces and military installations.
Leaders of the council, including Mustafa Abdul-Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril, are expected to join 13 heads of state, 19 prime ministers, and top diplomats including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Russia and China were sending high-level diplomats in charge of African affairs: Chinese Vice Foreign Minister for Foreign Affairs Zhai Jun and Russian special envoy for Africa Mikhail Margelov.
Margelov, quoted Wednesday by Russian news agency Interfax, said Russia would "influence" the process of creating a new Libyan government and "defend Russia's economic and other interests in Libya."
French officials said about 20 countries sending envoys hadn't yet formally recognized the rebels as Libya's government.
With Gadhafi loyalists still fighting, and his exact whereabouts still unknown, diplomats said they would try to ease the transition process and help prevent lingering violence in Libya.
The Libyan council faces major challenges in its bid to become the new government in war-battered Libya, like restoring electricity, paying salaries, battling food and water shortages, and reopening schools. Freeing up frozen funds abroad and receiving foreign expertise and assistance would help that process.
Jim Heintz in Moscow, Slobodan Lekic in Brussels and David Stringer in London contributed to this report.