Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took off for the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday for talks with international partners to ratchet up pressure on Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, who refuses to step down despite NATO's intense bombing campaign on the capital.
"We believe that momentum is building for a change in Libya," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Wednesday. The meetings in Abu Dhabi are the third of the so-called International Contact Group meetings on Libya; the first was in Doha, Qatar, and the second in Rome, Italy. “Every time we meet, we believe we've seen increasing international pressure."
In the most intense series of NATO strikes since the air campaign began in March, warplanes dropped more than 80 bombs on targets in Tripoli in an assault on Tuesday that lasted until Wednesday morning, The New York Times reported. Parts of Qaddafi’s compound and surrounding military targets were destroyed, but the embattled leader still insisted he would not step down. “We welcome death. Martyrdom is a million times better,” Qaddafi said on Tuesday.
Qaddafi’s hold on power appears to be weakening, with another key official defecting last month. Shukri Ghanem, Libya’s oil minister, defected to Tunisia. Qaddafi and two of his relatives are already facing separate charges from the International Criminal Court of crimes against humanity for their brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
The United States has been tracking these indications of cracks within Qaddafi’s regime. “We've seen … some defections, and we've seen continued solidarity in the international community in terms of making the choice very clear for Qaddafi that he needs to step aside and allow for a democratic transition to take place,” Toner said.
The rebels' interim government out of Benghazi has been calling for the United States and its Western allies to release the $34 billion in frozen Qaddafi funds, which the rebel fighters say they desperately need for weapons and supplies like gasoline, food, and salaries. While Congress is drafting legislation that would free up a portion of the money, the rebel’s interim prime minister Mahmoud Jibril said during a visit to Washington last month the $180 million Congress plans to release won’t make a dent in the rebels’ immediate needs and won't help avoid a humanitarian crisis.
The UAE meetings will "address very real concerns that the Transitional National Council has the kind of financial wherewithal to stay afloat and to keep functioning in this interim period," Toner said.
Meanwhile, after talks last week with South African President Jacob Zuma failed to persuade Qaddafi to step down, Russia and China for the first time sent diplomats to the rebel-held city of Benghazi in efforts to mediate an end to the conflict.
On the sidelines of the UAE meetings, Clinton will also discuss Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s bloody crackdown on protesters in an effort to rally Arab support. “She's there principally to talk Libya, but I imagine she'll also have an opportunity in the inner meetings to talk about Syria, and the way forward.”
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