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Russia recognizes Libyan rebels as country's leaders ahead of world conference on Libya
PARIS (AP) ' Russia recognized the Libyan rebel movement as the country's acting leadership Thursday, a key endorsement hours ahead of an international conference seeking to map Libya's future.
The summit in Paris of 60 world leaders and top envoys is also looking to free up billions in frozen Libyan assets worldwide to help the opposition, and reconcile diplomatic differences over the NATO-led airstrike campaign that helped oust iron-fisted leader Moammar Gadhafi.
The meeting is the first international gathering for the rebel-backed National Transitional Council now that it has taken Tripoli and controls most of Libya, and a test of its readiness to run a country ravaged by months of civil war and decades of dictatorship.
The council is expected to present a detailed list of requests at the conference, which comes 42 years to the day after Gadhafi seized power in a coup. It may seek short-term loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, U.S. officials said. While they do not want international peacekeepers, the rebels may seek a civilian U.N. police presence, the officials said.
While the United States and many European countries abandoned Gadhafi and recognized the rebel months ago, Russia was among those sharply critical of NATO's military campaign in Libya. The Russian envoy to the Paris conference said he is coming to defend Russia's economic interests in Libya, an oil-rich North African nation.
A short statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday said it recognized the National Transitional Council. Pressure will fall Thursday on other countries to follow suit ' especially China and Algeria.
China, a big investor in Libya, agreed at the last minute to send an envoy to the Paris conference, and stressed that the United Nations should take a leading role in Libya's future.
When asked about Thursday recognizing the rebels, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said only that China respects the choice of the Libyan people and attaches importance to the "role played by the National Transitional Council in the settlement of the Libyan issue."
Algeria offered safe haven to Gadhafi's wife and three of his children on Monday, drawing ire from the Libyan rebels. Algerian newspaper El Watan reported that Gadhafi himself also sought refuge across the border but the Algerian president refused to take his phone calls.
With Gadhafi's whereabouts unknown, Algeria's foreign minister insisted Thursday that he's not in Algeria. Asked on Europe-1 radio if Gadhafi could be given asylum, Mourad Medelci said, "I don't believe so."
Instead of aid for Libya, the financial focus at Thursday's conference will be on unfreezing assets linked to Gadhafi in banks worldwide. The money was blocked by a U.N. resolution earlier this year aimed at persuading Gadhafi to stop his violent crackdown on anti-government protests.
French officials say at least $50 billion linked to Gadhafi is believed to be squirreled away across the world. British officials have put the figure as high as $110 billion.
"France has just received authorization to transfer euro1.5 billion which belongs to the Libyans," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Thursday.
"We have to aid the transitional council because the country is devastated. The humanitarian situation is difficult. They lack water, gas, electricity," he said.
Late Wednesday, Britain's Royal Air Force delivered about 280 million Libyan dinars to the country's Central Bank in Benghazi, following a U.N. agreement to lift sanctions on about $1.6 billion of the $20 billion assets held in the U.K.
The notes were printed in Britain but seized in March under asset freezes. Britain will deliver a total of 1.86 billion Libyan dinars over the coming days.
"The bank notes will be used to pay the wages of Libyan public sector employees, including nurses, doctors, teachers and police officers," said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, coming to the Paris conference, hopes to announce that $1.5 billion in Gadhafi regime assets frozen in the United States have been distributed on behalf of the rebels, U.S. officials said. That money is about half the liquid assets of the more than $30 billion in frozen Libyan assets in the United States.
Years of insurgent violence in Iraq are a warning to leaders at Thursday's conference of the potential for postwar bloodshed.
Algeria's Medelci warned that terrorists could take advantage of the transition period in Libya and said some Libyan weapons have already fallen into the hands of al-Qaida's North African offshoot.
Summit hosts French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, two of the most vocal backers of the rebels, are eager for the Libyans themselves to be seen as taking the lead, instead of outside powers.
The transition process "is Libyan-led, this is Libyan-owned, this is not Iraq," Hague said on BBC Radio Thursday.
The fall of Gadhafi, who remains at large but whose regime has all but collapsed under the onslaught of NATO-led air power and rebel fighters, has fanned talk of parallels with the U.S.-led ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 ' notably among Iraqis, who warn that Libya's postwar aftermath could devolve into similar chaos.
Libya faces a tricky alchemy in the weeks ahead: Many rebels have different tribal loyalties, the country is awash in weapons ' some seized from bombed-out or pillaged army barracks ' and Gadhafi loyalists could be a wild card. The Libyan council must also restore electricity, battle food and water shortages, reopen schools ' and, a key priority, pay salaries.
British officials have stressed that Libya's interim new government must use Thursday's summit to offer assurances over the timetable toward elections. But Hague indicated there could be flexibility over the National Transitional Council's commitment to hold elections within 8 months.
"We will want them to stick to their deadline, but of course it is a deadline that they have set themselves," he told BBC radio.
Council leaders Mustafa Abdul-Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril are expected to be among 13 heads of state and 19 prime ministers at the conference, along with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and leaders of NATO, the European Union, African Union, the Arab League, and the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Matthew Lee in Washington, Jim Heintz in Moscow, David Stringer in London, Scott McDonald in Beijing and Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.