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Officials say contact group to recognize Libyan opposition as 'legitimate authority'
ISTANBUL (AP) ' More than 30 countries will recognize the Libyan opposition as the "legitimate authority of Libya," officials said Friday, a move that would keep up the military pressure on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and potentially free up cash the rebels urgently need.
Such a move would be a major upgrade for the opposition Transitional National Council, which has been seeking formal recognition from the United States and others for months.
As it becomes increasingly clear that the council will govern a post-Gadhafi Libya, senior U.S. officials have said the Obama administration was preparing to strengthen ties once it presents detailed plans for a democratic and inclusive government.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been pledged to special financial mechanism, but tens of millions in frozen Gadhafi regime assets in the U.S. and elsewhere are still inaccessible to rebels because of the lack of recognition and U.N. sanctions.
Speaking on the sidelines of the fourth meeting of the Contact Group on Libya in Istanbul, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told reporters that "the entire Libyan Contact Group decided to recognize the TNC as the legitimate authority of Libya."
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said, "this means that we will be able to unfreeze a certain amount of money belonging to the Libyan state since it is the Transitional National Council which as of now will have this responsibility."
A road map to end the conflict demands that Gadhafi must resign and a cease-fire be declared with a goal for democratic elections, Juppe said. He stressed that military pressure will be kept until Gadhafi steps aside.
Earlier Turkey's foreign minister urged delegates to find "innovative ways" to support the Libyan opposition. Ahmet Davutoglu suggested the group open lines of credit to meet the Libyan rebels' "urgent need for cash" before the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, which starts next month. Turkey has already started a $200 million credit line, he said.
Davutoglu also stressed the need to increase humanitarian aid as the holy Muslim month of Ramadan approached, warning that ongoing U.N. sanctions are causing suffering among people living under Gadhafi's control.
There have been concerns about whether the initial government would represent the full spectrum of Libyan society, and Human Right Watch called on the Contact Group on Libya to press the opposition to ensure that civilians are protected in areas where rebels have assumed control.
The right groups said Friday it has documented abuses in four towns ' Awaniya, Rayayinah, Zawiyat al-Bagul, and Qawalish ' recently captured by rebels in the western mountains, including looting, arson, and beatings of some civilians who remained when government forces withdrew.
"Rebel abuses may pale in comparison with the atrocities by Libyan government forces, but they require immediate attention," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Governments supporting the NATO campaign should push the opposition to protect civilians in areas where rebels have control, especially where some people may support the government."
Turkey, which is co-chairing Friday's meeting together with the United Arab Emirates, has called for an immediate cease-fire and providing water, food and fuel to strife-torn cities. It wants NATO to stop targeting ground forces to prevent civilian casualties, HaberTurk television said Friday.
Davutoglu told reporters on Thursday night that Gadhafi could remain in Libya if an agreement is reached, the Turkish Daily News reported on Friday. Gadhafi has refused to step down although French officials have said Libyan emissaries are seeking sanctuary for the leader.
Frattini also said that the U.N. special envoy to Libya, Abdelilah Al-Khatib, has been authorized as the sole representative to communicate with the Gadhafi regime. The move apparently aims to simplify lines of communication with the Libyan regime.
Rebel forces are trying to close in on the Libyan capital to overthrow Gadhafi. But his forces reportedly repelled a coordinated attack by NATO forces and rebels against a strategic oil town, Brega, in the east of the country on Thursday.
Ahead of the meeting in Istanbul, a defiant spokesman for the Libyan government said they were ready to die in defense of the country's oil against attacks by the rebels and NATO forces.
We will kill, we will die for oil," Moussa Ibrahim said. "Rebels, NATO, we don't care. We will defend our oil to the last drop of blood and we are going to use everything."