Poland's Sikorski meets Libyan rebels, delivers aid

BENGHAZI, Libya Wed May 11, 2011 4:20pm EDT

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BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski visited the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi on Wednesday to demonstrate Europe's support for their cause and deliver medical aid.

Sikorski is the first senior government representative from the international Contact Group on Libya to visit Benghazi since it rose up against Gaddafi in February. The group comprises the United States, major European nations and some Arab states.

"The only solution for Libya is the departure from power of Colonel (Muammar) Gaddafi and the launch of a constitutional process that would lead Libya to democratization," Sikorski told rebel chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil.

"We wish the Libyan nation victory in democratization."

Jalil, speaking in Arabic through an interpreter, recalled Poland's own struggle for democracy during communist times.

Sikorski's plane, which carried crates of medical supplies for the Libyans, had to abort a first attempt to land in Benghazi after a bomb alert at the airport. His convoy was later cheered by local people as it traveled through the city.

Warsaw, which assumes the European Union's rotating presidency in July, is keen to dispel suggestions that it remains too focused on its own eastern neighbors such as Ukraine and Belarus and is ignoring events in North Africa.

"I'm visiting Benghazi after agreeing it with (EU foreign policy chief) Catherine Ashton on the eve of our presidency of the EU to highlight the fact that Poland is interested in representing the EU in both the eastern and southern dimension," Sikorski told reporters on his plane en route for Benghazi.

Usually a staunch NATO ally, Poland came under fire in some quarters for refusing to take part in the alliance-led military operations against Gaddafi's forces.

PROMOTING DEMOCRACY

Poland has some 2,500 troops serving in the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan but Prime Minister Donald Tusk, facing an election in October, is reluctant to make further military commitments overseas.

But Tusk has promised humanitarian aid and has sent two delegations to Tunisia to explore how Poland might provide advice based on its own experience of a democratic transition to reformers in that country, where the "Arab spring" first began.

Sikorski assured Jalil that the EU recognized the interim rebel council as a "legitimate interlocutor".

Some European countries such as France have recognized the rebels' council as the official representative of Libya but others including Poland have stopped short of full recognition, worried this could trigger a complete partition of the country.

Earlier on Wednesday, Ashton told the European Parliament in Strasbourg that the EU would open an office in Benghazi to provide help to the rebel council on health care, education and security sector reform.

Western powers are looking for ways to help the rebels more militarily but are hampered by the U.N. Security Council's sanctions regime that is intended to punish Gaddafi's regime.

"There is work underway on how to pass on to the rebels funds of Gaddafi's regime that have been frozen abroad," an EU diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"There is some 30 billion dollars in the United States and some six to seven billion dollars in Britain. Italy and Germany also have some. But this is a complicated matter and everybody's waiting to see what the United States does on this."

(Writing by Gareth Jones, editing by Philippa Fletcher)

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