TRIPOLI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Libyan rebels will meet senior White House officials in Washington Friday, seeking both cash and diplomatic legitimacy in their war to topple Muammar Gaddafi.
The head of the rebel National Transitional Council’s executive bureau, Mahmoud Jebril, will meet President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, and other senior officials, the White House said in a statement.
Jebril, a U.S.-educated technocrat who has become the public face of the rebel council, made a plea for Washington to free up some $180 million in frozen Gaddafi funds to fund the rebels fighting to end his 41-year rule.
The Washington meeting comes a day after the council’s chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil met British Prime Minister David Cameron in London, securing a promise of more aid.
Rebels fighting Gaddafi for almost three months control Benghazi and the east of the country, while Gaddafi’s forces are entrenched in the capital Tripoli and nearly all of the west.
NATO-led forces are bombing Libya under a U.N. resolution authorizing them to protect civilians. The United States, Britain and France say they will maintain their air campaign until Gaddafi’s 41-year rule ends.
The rebels say they need funds urgently to pay salaries and run the areas under their control, and want international legitimacy to allow them access to frozen assets.
“We are facing a very acute ... financial problem because of the frozen assets,” Jebril said at the Brookings Institution think tank. “So I would like to seize this opportunity ... to call on the United States administration to help us.”
NATO forces bombed Gaddafi’s compound early Thursday, and rebels say NATO air strikes helped them secure a major victory this week in seizing the airport in the besieged city of Misrata, their only major stronghold in the west of the country.
Yet the war on the ground remains largely stalemated, with the rebels having little success advancing beyond their eastern strongholds in their goal of ousting Gaddafi.
Libyan television showed footage of Gaddafi Wednesday, ending doubt about his fate after he was not seen in public for nearly two weeks following an air strike that killed his youngest son. State television showed fresh footage of the leader Thursday in another meeting with tribal leaders.
Tripoli says most Libyans support Gaddafi. It calls the rebels armed criminals and al Qaeda militants and says NATO’s intervention is an act of colonial aggression.
Libyan officials showed reporters the scene of Thursday’s overnight air NATO strike on the compound and said three people were killed and 25 wounded in the attack.
Government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said the strikes hit near a spot where dozens of Libyans come every night, some with families, to shout slogans in support of Gaddafi.
He denied the compound contained any military facilities and pointed to a small park near one of the craters where children were playing on a carousel.
“The NATO alliance is completely bereft of morality,” Ibrahim said. “No one has the right to say to the people of Libya move away from the cities so we can bombard you.”
An official at NATO headquarters said the target it hit was a large command and control bunker complex.
In London, Jalil said Western governments should go beyond offering equipment such as satellite phones and body armarmorour and start providing guns. “We need some lethal weapons,” he said.
In another boost, the Libyan military attache at Tripoli’s embassy in the United Arab Emirates told Al Arabiya television Thursday he was quitting his post to join the rebel ranks.
The rebels’ most urgent need is to resume the production of crude oil, stopped by raids by pro-Gaddafi forces on rebel-controlled oil fields in the south-east of Libya.
A senior official in Benghazi said he could not say when the fields would start pumping again. “It’s unsafe. Our oil fields have to be protected,” Abdullah Shamia told Reuters.
Thousands of people have been killed since the revolt broke out against Gaddafi’s rule in late February.
A Frenchman died of a gunshot wound after he and four other French nationals were stopped at a police checkpoint in Benghazi, the French Foreign ministry said Thursday. It had no information about who the man was or why he was in Benghazi.
Reporting by Matt Robinson in Zintan, Mohammad Abbas and Deepa Babington in Benghazi, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Peter Griffiths in London, Souhail Karam in Rabat, Catherine Hornby in Rome, Matt Spetalnick and David Alexander in Washington and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Matthew Bigg, editing by Peter Graff