Turkey supports Libyan rebels

Initially reluctant, NATO member promises aid

BENGHAZI, Libya – Turkey’s foreign minister recognized Libya’s rebel leaders as the country’s legitimate representatives and promised them an additional $200 million in aid during a visit Sunday.

The visit by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu marked Turkey’s strongest show of support yet for the opposition forces trying to oust Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Turkey, a regional power, initially balked at the idea of military action in Libya and Turkish companies were involved in Libyan construction projects worth billions of dollars before the outbreak of an anti-Gadhafi uprising in February.

The revolt has turned into a protracted, largely deadlocked armed conflict, in which the rebels control Libya’s eastern third while Gadhafi clings to power in the west but has been unable to crush pockets of resistance there. As a NATO member, Turkey is now supporting the alliance’s airstrikes against targets linked to the Gadhafi regime.

Davutoglu met with Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, chairman of the rebels’ National Transitional Council, in a heavily guarded government building in the city of Benghazi, the rebel’s main stronghold in eastern Libya.

Later Sunday, a rebel spokesman downplayed media reports quoting Abdul-Jalil as saying Gadhafi has the option to remain in Libya, provided he resigns and orders a cease-fire. Abdel-Hafiz Ghoga suggested the rebel chief was expressing a personal view, saying that the idea is “not part of any discussions on our part in negotiations.”

“Let Gadhafi show us one place in Libya where he hasn’t harmed, tortured or killed people and he could stay there, but this place doesn’t exist,” said Ghoga.

The Turkish visitor, meanwhile, said his country recognizes the rebel leaders as the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people. Several other countries, including France, Qatar and Italy, have previously recognized the rebels.

Ali al-Essawi, who serves as the rebels’ foreign minister, noted that “Turkey has given us political as well as financial support and humanitarian aid.”

Turkey has already granted the Libyan opposition $100 million in aid and promised an additional $200 million. Some of the money is to be used to improve the infrastructure of Benghazi and rehabilitate its airport.

Temel Kotil, chief executive officer of Turkish Airlines, said his company would resume flights to Benghazi as soon as the security situation improves. Mahmoud Jibril, one of the rebel leaders, will pay a two-day visit to Turkey on Tuesday to discuss the promised aid in more detail.

“For us, the destiny of Libya is the same as the destiny of Turkey,” said Davutoglu. “I expressed our solidarity and commitment.”

On the way to the airport for his flight home, Davutoglu stopped in Benghazi’s Freedom Square. He was greeted by hundreds of demonstrators who chanted “Gadhafi out.”

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