David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy flew into Libya on Thursday and warned Syria and other regimes across the Middle East and north Africa that “the Arab spring could become an Arab summer”.
In a measure of how quickly order has been restored in Tripoli, the prime minister and the French president touched down in the capital less than a month after Muammar Gaddafi was toppled amid heavy fighting.
At a hospital the pair were given an enthusiastic welcome – the kind of reception the two could only dream about in their own countries – and a calmer, but no less warm, greeting by Libya’s interim rulers.
Although anxious to avoid perceptions of a victory lap, given the ongoing fighting and the failure to capture Gaddafi, Cameron and Sarkozy cited the Libyan experience as a beacon for the region.
“This does go beyond Libya,” Cameron told a press conference at the Corinthia hotel. “This is a moment when the Arab spring could become an Arab summer and we see democracy advance in other countries too.
“I believe you have the opportunity to give an example to others about what taking back your country can mean.”
Sarkozy turned the spotlight on Syria, where an uprising has so far been brutally repressed and foreign support has been less forthcoming. “As I flew over Tripoli today, I thought about the hope that one day young Syrians will be given the opportunity that young Libyans have now been given,” he said. “Perhaps the best thing I can do is dedicate our visit to Tripoli to those who hope that Syria can one day also be a free country.”
Apache helicopters flew over the Mediterranean and parts of Tripoli were in security lockdown for the surprise visit – the first by western leaders since the capital fell to rebel forces. Sarkozy, who said he was “deeply moved” by the welcome, was accompanied by dozens of French riot police.
The leaders, along with the foreign secretary, William Hague, visited a hospital in the heart of Tripoli. There was chaos as security men had to force a way through and the politicians were mobbed by ecstatic Libyans eager to thank them and shake their hands, chanting: “Thank you, thank you,” and “Libya is free, Gaddafi go away.”
On the orthopaedic ward, Cameron and Sarkozy spoke to rebel fighters and Libyans injured in the battle for Tripoli, as well as to patients recovering from torture in Gaddafi’s prison cells.
In Benghazi, Sarkozy and Cameron were treated to a rowdy welcome in Freedom Square, shouting to be heard over a cheering crowd.
“It’s great to be here in free Benghazi and in free Libya,” said Cameron, as he strained to be heard above the chants in scenes from the former rebel stronghold televised live across the globe.
The French president, struggling for re-election next year, beamed as the crowd chanted “One, two, three, merci Sarkozy!” while the two leaders, flanking National Transitional Council (NTC) chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil, held his arms aloft like a victorious boxer.
“France, Great Britain, Europe, will always stand by the side of the Libyan people,” said Sarkozy, whom many Libyans credit with making a decisive gamble, pulling in a hesitant United States and securing UN backing for Nato air strikes to halt Gaddafi’s tanks as they closed in to crush Benghazi.
“Your city was an inspiration to the world as you threw off a dictator and chose freedom,” Cameron said. “Colonel Gaddafi said he would hunt you down like rats but you showed the courage of lions.”
Later the leaders were careful not to sound triumphalist over Nato’s controversial intervention, emphasising that the mission to protect civilians would go on so long as the fighting continued in the regime’s last strongholds.
Cameron’s message for Gaddafi and his supporters was blunt: “It is over. Give up. The mercenaries should go home. Those who still think Gaddafi has any part in any arm of government in any part of this country should forget it. He doesn’t,” he said.
“It is time for him to give himself up. It is time for the Libyan people to get the justice they deserve by seeing him face justice, and we’ll go on helping the NTC to make sure that happens, and this country can move on – it shows every sign of wanting to move on.”
But he warned: “I would accept that the hardest work is still to come, of making sure that everyone has a future in this country, getting it back on its feet. These will be difficult times but, so far, what I think we have seen from the National Transitional Council, what we are seeing here in Tripoli, is a remarkable and impressive recovery from a very difficult situation.”
Cameron said he did not know where Gaddafi and his family were, but added: “There are still parts of Libya under Gaddafi’s control, Gaddafi is still at large, and we must make sure this work is completed.
“We must keep on with the Nato mission until civilians are all protected and this work is finished. We will help you to find Gaddafi and to bring him to justice, and we want to help you to take the dangerous weapons out of Libya.”
Amid the metaphorical back-slapping, there have been questions over whether France and Britain will expect payback from Libya’s new leaders when they award lucrative contracts. Sarkozy insisted no promises had been given or sought. “This is a very important issue and I want things to be very clear to all the Arab world,” he said. “What we did was for humanitarian reasons. There was no hidden agenda.”
But Jalil, sharing the platform, was less clear cut. While agreeing there were no previous agreements with the NTC’s “allies and friends”, he added: “But as a faithful Muslim people, we will appreciate these efforts and they will have priority within a framework of transparency.”
He also said existing contracts signed with the Gaddafi government would be reviewed. “The previous contracts, we have respected them … all legitimate contracts.
“This means review of these contracts for whatever financial corruption may have tainted them. As a member of the previous government, I know well that these prices were above those used globally.”
Cameron praised the NTC, saying it had been “consistently underrated and underestimated” as he expressed optimism for Libya’s future. He said: “This is your revolution, not our revolution.”
Britain announced measures to help with mine clearance and the decommissioning of weapons as part of a post-conflict package of assistance.
Cameron also set out a new scheme – funded by Tripoli – to treat some of the most badly injured Libyans in UK hospitals using expert surgery techniques.
He said he hoped the first to benefit would be Abdul Ahmed, a Libyan boy who was wounded by a grenade left in his school and whose plight has been featured on British television.
Britain and France would also press for a fresh UN security council resolution on Friday to unfreeze all Libyan assets, the prime minister said. He used the visit to announce the planned delivery of the latest tranche of around £610m of assets that were frozen in the UK.
Source: The Guardian