Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Tripoli on Tuesday, pledging millions of dollars in new aid to provide medical care for Libyans wounded during the uprising that toppled longtime leader Muammar el-Qaddafi and to secure the country's weapons depots. Clinton is the most senior U.S. official to visit Libya since the uprising began.
Months of bloody fighting in Libya left about 15,000 wounded. Of those, about 1,500 are amputees in need of specialized care unavailable in Libya, the Associated Press reports. The new aid package, expected to total about $11 million, will include transportation to treat some of the most severely wounded and provide spare parts to fix medical equipment for trauma care.
The new aid package brings the total amount of U.S. aid to the country to roughly $135 million, according to AP.
Separately, the U.S. is also planning to ramp up spending to help Libya’s interim government secure and destroy the shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles and weapons looted from Qaddafi’s stockpiles. A senior State Department official said Clinton will tell Libyan leaders that the U.S. contribution to these efforts will go up to $40 million. The months of fighting and NATO strikes in Libya left much of the country’s ammunition storage areas unsecured and open to looting. Since the outbreak of fighting, U.S. officials have been concerned about the proliferation of weapons—especially shoulder-fired missiles—and worried that small arms, ammunition, and explosives could be smuggled out of the country and fall into the hands of those planning terrorist attacks.
The U.S. has already spent nearly $6 million on its conventional weapons disposal efforts, sending a quick reaction force of weapons experts to Libya and funneling funds to two European mine-clearing organizations on the ground.
It's been two months since the Libyan rebels, backed by NATO air power, stormed the capital of Tripoli and hailed the prospective end of Qaddafi’s four-decade rule. But with Qaddafi himself still at large and fighting continuing in pockets of the country, Libya's interim government hasn't yet declared an official end to the conflict -- and can't set in motion its plans to transition to democracy.
It’s a moment of limbo for Libya, as well as Washington and its allies. While Qaddafi remains free, victory is out of reach and so is the transition to new government and elections. NATO officials say they stand ready to assist whoever leads Libya after Qaddafi is removed from power, however long that takes, but everyone is still waiting.
While they watch and wait, Washington has increased the number of weapons experts on the ground to help locate missing and potentially dangerous stockpiles of surface-to-air missiles, and the NATO allies have agreed to continue their bombardment in areas yet to fall to the Libyans fighting Qaddafi loyalists.
At a meeting of defense ministers in Brussels earlier this month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said NATO warplanes will keep controlling the skies while fighting continues between Libya's provisional government forces and Qaddafi’s loyalists. "If there continues to be serious fighting, if there continues to be threats to the civilian population, then I'm sure this mission will continue,” Panetta said.
The rebels on Monday claimed to have made significant gains in their fight for one of the last major strongholds for loyalists of the toppled leader: the desert enclave of Bani Walid.
The foreign-supported Libyan Transitional National Council fighters say they entered the city center of Bani Walid and raised the pre-Qaddafi tri-colored national flag. A TNC military spokesman, Col. Ahmed Bani, told reporters in Tripoli on Monday that the rebels now control "more than 90 percent of Bani Walid" after sustaining heavy casualties. Their assaults had been beaten back by an estimated 1,500 Qaddafi loyalists remaining in the town. Now, they face pockets of resistance in villages around the city center, according to the Associated Press.
The other major stronghold of pro-Qaddafi fighters is in the coastal city of Surt, where battles have raged for a month. Qaddafi's loyalists and African mercenaries have repeatedly driven back the TNC fighters, and now the rebels are stepping up their attacks. As recently as last week, Lt. Gen. Ralph Jodice, commander of NATO’s air campaign in Libya, told The New York Times that Qaddafi loyalist forces are still a “resilient and fierce” threat in the two towns, and have been able to sustain command-and-control and supply lines to defend them.
Meanwhile, speculation abounds over Qaddafi's whereabouts. A military spokesman for the TNC told USA Today there’s an “80 percent to 90 percent chance he’s in the south areas of Libya,” protected by the nomadic Tuareg tribe. Others speculate that Qaddafi may have fled through a southern border to another country offering him refuge—possibly Venezuela, where Qaddafi had close ties with its president, Hugo Chavez, or an African country.
During a visit to Tripoli on Monday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague pledged more humanitarian aid and said it was crucial to bring Qaddafi and his son Seif al-Islam to justice. Both men, along with former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senoussi, are wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity during a campaign of violence to quash the Libyan uprising. Hague pledged Britain would continue to help in the search. "We've already been very active reminding other countries in Africa of their responsibility--their responsibility to apprehend and to hand over to the Libyans or to the International Criminal Court any of these people who go onto their territory," Hague said.
"Of course we don't know where all of them are, but we will continue to assist in looking for them," Hague continued.
The rebel council has already outlined its timetable for a transition to democracy, but all plans are on hold until the council officially declares an end to the conflict. TNC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil told reporters in late August that the council plans to hold elections within 18 months of a “declaration of liberation” of the country. Such a declaration would come after the death or capture of Qaddafi.
In the meantime, the TNC has taken some steps towards transition, confirming on Monday that it signed an agreement to partially lift the no-fly zone over the country and allow some flights without prior approval from the alliance. "The partial lifting of the air embargo will help with the transportation of the casualties, which is the No. 1 priority at this time, as well as facilitate the movement of people between Libya and the rest of the world," the council's minister of transportation and communications, Anwar Elfeitori, told the AP.