BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan rebels, buoyed after France officially recognized their Benghazi-based council as representing the Libyan people, vowed Thursday to fight on against Muammar Gaddafi’s rule, even without a no-fly zone.
Rebel leaders, along with fighters on the front line battling Gaddafi forces backed by tanks and warplanes, have made an impassioned plea to Washington and its allies to impose a no-fly zone to ground Libya’s air force.
“If they implement a no-fly zone we will ask for other things. Even if they do not implement it, we will fight,” Iman Bugaigis, a media officer with the rebel February 17 Coalition, told reporters.
“There is no return for us. This nation will not bear both of us. It is us or his (Gaddafi’s) family. After what happened in (the besieged western town of) Zawiyah, how can we live with this person?” she said.
France recognized the National Libyan Council as the legitimate representative of Libya’s people Thursday, the first country to make the move.
There was celebratory gunfire and cheering on the streets outside the courthouse where the rebels are based when news came of Paris’s decision. People in cars honked their horns.
The announcement came as NATO and the European Union begin talks Thursday on a possible “no-fly” zone over Libya after some of the fiercest fighting of the three-week-old revolt.
Speaking at a news conference in Libya’s second-biggest city where the uprising started and where the rebels are based, Bugaigis dismissed Gaddafi’s assertion that al Qaeda was behind the uprising that is threatening his 41-year rule.
“Gaddafi is hiring PR agents and consultancies. For us everything is spontaneous but we have right on our side,” she said.
“If we are bearing arms, it is just to defend ourselves. Everything he (Gaddafi) says about al Qaeda is his propaganda. Hillary Clinton said she was worried about al Qaeda, of civil war. But it is just us against this (Gaddafi) family. How can this be her perception?” asked Bugaigis.
She sought to distance the rebels from being “extremist” and emphasized national unity despite statements by a son of Gaddafi that Libya’s tribal society would descend into civil war if his father stepped down.
“Gaddafi tries all the time to stir conflicts between us ... We are a homogenous society. Our name is the Libyan Republic, not the Libyan Arab Republic because we have different ethnicities,” Bugaigis said.
She noted there was a range of tribes, but said: “They are Libyans like us and they were repressed like us.”
On purchasing more weapons for rebel fighters, she said: “Of course. All options are on the table.”
Talking about diplomacy to gain recognition, she said:
“We have secured a condemnation from the Gulf states and they urged the Arab League to call an emergency meeting. This is what they (National Libyan Council representatives) did.
“They met the Swiss president, they will meet tomorrow the EU (in Brussels). We also have an advance delegation with the British.”
Rebels were also considering what to do with Libya’s oil. Ghanem Bashir, a telecoms engineer who is a consultant to the February 17th coalition, told reporters recognition by other countries would clearly be important for marketing Libya’s crude oil, much of which comes from fields in the east.
Asked how early first shipments could be marketed directly to bypass the state oil apparatus, he said: “We want it as soon as possible ... Yes, with recognition (of the national council) by the French, British and other governments, we can do it.”
On which nations are being targeted to recognize the council, he said:
“Britain, Germany and Turkey. This is a Mediterranean problem. A disturbance will affect the whole region. We try to make the Mediterranean area peaceful for all our neighbors.”
Bashir said: “The West is going to drive us to do this (black market oil sales) but when things are back to normal, this will end ... If the West does not provide support requested by the National Council, our people will try to sell the oil under the table, on the black market, just as Gaddafi is doing.”
Writing by Peter Millership in Cairo; Editing by Sophie Hares