BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - U.S. Senator John McCain on Friday urged President Barack Obama’s administration to recognize the Libyan rebel national council as the country’s rightful government and transfer frozen Libyan assets to them.
McCain also called for NATO to step up its air strikes against Muammar Gaddafi’s military and said Western allies should provide rebels with training, weapons and command- and-control activities to help overthrow the Libyan leader.
“I would encourage every nation, especially the United States, to recognize the transitional national council as the legitimate voice of the Libyan people,” McCain said, speaking to reporters in the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
“They have earned this right and Gaddafi has forfeited it by waging war on his own people.”
McCain is believed to be the most senior Western politician and the first from the United States, to visit Benghazi since the conflict broke out in late February.
Responding to McCain’s appeal, White House spokesman Jay Carney said it was not up to the United States to decide who the legitimate leaders of Libya should be.
“We think it’s for the people of Libya to decide who the head of their country is, not for the United States to do that.”
An aide said McCain met with rebel leaders including finance chief Ali Tarhouni and armed forces head Abdel Fattah Younes.
National council head Mustafa Abdel Jalil called McCain’s visit “very touching.”
“We discussed the question of U.S. recognition and the question of U.S. help to the alliance in protecting civilians who are subjected to a true humanitarian tragedy,” Jalil told the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television, monitored in Cairo.
McCain, the top Republican on the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, also said he was worried the battle between Gaddafi’s troops and rebel forces was reaching a stalemate that could “open the door to radical Islamic fundamentalism.”
He said NATO should intensify its air campaign, particularly in the besieged city of Misrata, the largest rebel bastion in western Libya.
“It is still incredibly puzzling to me that the two most accurate close air support weapons systems, the A-10 and the AC-130, have been taken out of the fight,” he said.
McCain earlier told reporters he would continue to push the Obama administration to recognize the rebels’ national council, which would allow them access to funds that would help finance the insurgency.
“I just came from a hospital where I saw the dead and dying, and it argues for us to help them and to get this thing over with and Gaddafi out,” he said, speaking at a Benghazi hotel.
McCain also met with British military advisers in Libya and would head to Cairo to meet with officials there, an aide said.
The U.S. Treasury has frozen more than $34 billion in Libyan government assets thus far as part of a sanctions program aimed at putting pressure on Gaddafi’s regime.
McCain said countries that have frozen Libyan assets should release some of the money to rebels to help them govern.
“Their finance minister told me today that they don’t have a lot of time without additional funds,” he told reporters.
A source close to the office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy told Reuters France was in favor of unfreezing Libyan assets abroad to help finance the rebels.
McCain said rebels were outmatched by Gaddafi’s troops on the battlefield and badly needed anti-armor weapons and communications equipment.
The U.S. could help make sure weapons got to the opposition’s military, as they did with Afghan insurgents fighting a Russian occupation in the 1980s, he said.
“I do believe that, as we have in the past, we can help facilitate weapons to get to the hands of the Libyan military, those who are fighting against Gaddafi,” he said. “Let’s face it: This is not a fair fight.”
McCain arrived in Benghazi after the United States announced that it would use armed drone aircraft against Gaddafi’s forces, a step McCain said he was pleased with.
Some 200 Libyans staged a demonstration outside the hotel where McCain spoke, waving the U.S. and Libyan rebel flags.
“We like the change from the United States,” Mohamed el-Sherif, a 32-year-old engineer, said as he waved an American flag. “We need a good relationship with the United States.”
Additional reporting by Kim Dixon, Lisa Richwine and David Lawder in Washington; editing by Sami Aboudi in Cairo and Philippa Fletcher