Days after the death of Osama bin Laden demonstrated the reach of U.S. military power, Western and Arab foreign ministers head to Rome to hear out a Turkish plan to end a conflict in Libya that has killed thousands and driven crude oil prices to a 2 1/2-year high.
Italy, reliant on Libya for a quarter of its crude oil, will host the second meeting of 22-nation Libya Contact Group. The meeting comes amid signs of growing frustration in the alliance as the seven-week NATO air campaign has been unable to stop Muammar Qaddafi’s military attacks seeking to crush a popular revolt that began in mid-February.
On the eve of the meeting, Turkey has aligned itself more tightly with Western allies and toughened its language against Qaddafi. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seeking to take center stage as broker of a new cease-fire settlement, has shifted from calls for a peaceful transition to demanding the Libyan dictator step down “immediately.”
“There is much more than a plan, but you will have to be patient and wait,” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told reporters in Rome. “The objective of this meeting is to establish coordination for a political initiative, to take a decision on economic support for the National Council of Benghazi, and to set up a road map for a cease-fire.”
Frattini, under pressure at home to press international allies to agree to an end date for the military operations in Libya, will co-chair the talks with Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani. United Arab Emirates, which has supplied warplanes, will also be represented.
‘Tears, Bloodshed and Autocracy’
“What needs to happen now is for Qaddafi to immediately withdraw from power and to bring to pass his historical, human and moral responsibility,” Erdogan said yesterday in Istanbul. Declining to disclose plan details, Erdogan said the Islamic world shouldn’t be linked to “tears, bloodshed and autocracy.”
Past cease-fire overtures, including one effort by South Africa, failed to gain traction as Libyan rebels refuse proposals that don’t foresee Qaddafi’s immediate departure. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, mandated to enforce a United Nations-ordered no-fly zone, have insisted Qaddafi forces must stop attacks on civilians before any truce can be contemplated.
The top priority in Rome is the creation of a fund, made up primarily of donations, to meet the requests of rebels, according to an Italian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Responsibility for handling any contact with Tripoli will pass to the UN to avoid what the Italian official called misguided and confusing efforts by some nations to act as go-betweens.
$2 Billion Loan
Among the foreign ministers expected in Rome is U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who skipped out on the first-round contact group meeting in mid-April in Doha, where Libyan rebels asked to borrow $2 billion and said they would be rid of Qaddafi in a “matter of weeks.”
Representatives of Libya’s Transitional National Council, the interim authority set up by the rebels, will also attend and renew requests for money and weapons to continue fighting.
Ali al-Tarhouni, head of economic and oil affairs for the council, said yesterday in Benghazi that the group will seek as much as $3 billion, a loan to be secured against future oil revenue, and “is hoping to get most or all of this.”
Oil interests will also loom large over discussions. France’s Total SA, Italy’s Eni SpA and Spain’s Repsol SA are the three Mediterranean refiners which, being closest to Libya, are the most the most reliant on its crude. Eni, the biggest foreign oil producer in Libya, said first-quarter oil production fell 8.6 percent due to the turmoil in the North African country.
East Vs. West
Stalemate persists in Libya, split between the oil-rich east, controlled by rebels, and Qaddafi’s stronghold in the west. Much of the fighting has centered on the western port city of Misrata, transformed into a humanitarian catastrophe under the frequent shelling by Qaddafi’s forces.
The allies are seeking to establish a “clear corridor” so that aid can safely enter the port after NATO stopped an effort to mine the entry to the harbor.
Casting a new light over the meetings are the deaths of Qaddafi’s youngest son and three of his grandchildren, killed in an April 30 NATO airstrike said to have targeted a command bunker, and the fatal shooting this week of the world’s most-wanted terrorist during a secret U.S. mission.
Both may carry a message for Qaddafi, as U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague indicated when briefing members of Parliament yesterday. “Whether individuals are targeted depends on how they behave,” he said.
-- With assistance from Lorenzo Totaro in Rome and Benjamin Harvey in Istanbul. Editors: Terry Atlas, Robin Meszoly