Zapatero urges EU to back Libya rebels

Spanish prime minister sent diplomatic envoy to meet anti-Gaddafi leaders in Benghazi

Spanish leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is scheduled to attend an extraordinary EU meeting in Brussels Friday to try to hammer out a common European stance on the Libyan crisis, a day after France unilaterally announced it was recognizing the rebels. While not going so far himself, Zapatero asked for a "clear and strong" show of EU support for the opponents of Muammar Gaddafi's regime.

Although EU members have already agreed on sanctions against Gaddafi and are contemplating support for a hypothetical military intervention, Zapatero said that this should be used as a last resort and only under a UN mandate. Spain's prime minister will be contributing first-hand accounts to the debate on how to relate to the Libyan opposition, after a Spanish envoy met with the National Transition Council in Benghazi last weekend.

Yuste met with Jalil and his "ministers" inside the liberated city's Justice Palace
He said this was no disorganized guerrilla group but an embryonic state
More information
Zapatero seeks support for Libyan intervention
Spain will "meet obligations" over Libya, says minister

Zapatero will also convey his impressions of his recent trip to Tunisia, where he met with transition authorities and members of the opposition. Foreign Minister Trinidad Jiménez said on Thursday that the EU sees "no way out" of the crisis that is compatible with Gaddafi remaining in power, considering his use of violence against the population to put down the uprising.

A Spanish envoy met with Libyan rebel leaders last Saturday in Benghazi, the de facto capital of the area controlled by opponents of the dictator, government sources told EL PAÍS.

While Spain is not the only country to have had contact with the National Transition Council, headed by former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil, it is the first foreign government known to have held a meeting on Libyan territory. The US State Department announced that its ambassador to Libya had met with opposition leaders in Cairo and Rome, while the EU's High Representative Catherine Ashton met Libyan insurgents in Strasbourg.

Zapatero reportedly issued instructions for the meeting to take place on Libyan soil while he was on a tour of the Persian Gulf last week. The man in charge of establishing this first contact with the rebels was Pablo Yuste, head of the Humanitarian Office of the Spanish International Cooperation and Development Agency (AECID). Yuste, who was formally on a humanitarian mission, covered the more than 1,000 kilometers separating Cairo from Benghazi by road, bringing three tons of medicines for the Red Crescent organization. But as part of an undercover political mission, Yuste met with Jalil and his "ministers" inside the liberated city's Justice Palace.

In order to avoid a repeat performance of the recent British fiasco, in which a diplomatic team from that country was detained while trying to meet with rebels in Libya, Yuste's trip was carefully planned and had the authorization of the insurgents.

Back in Spain, Yuste reported that the opposition leaders include highly qualified individuals on a technical and professional level, and that his personal assessment was that this is not a disorganized guerrilla group but an embryonic state administration. Every liberated city has created its own municipal council that reports to the National Council. There is no shortage of supplies in that part of the country and the only products Yuste was asked for were specialized drugs for cancer patients and people suffering from chronic disease.

The rebels' main demand, however, was political: recognizing the National Transition Council as the legitimate government of Libya. Diplomatic sources ruled out the possibility of Spain doing so in the short run, or at least until the EU 27 agree to do so. This was before France on Thursday unilaterally announced it was recognizing the Council as the "only representative of the Libyan people" and that it was sending an ambassador to Benghazi.

Meanwhile, Zapatero refused to take a call from Gaddafi on Wednesday, government sources said. The call was part of a diplomatic offensive by the embattled Libyan president aimed at preventing an international military intervention. Like other European leaders, Zapatero considered that Gaddafi is no longer a valid spokesman for his people. While Libya formally retains its embassy in Madrid, Ambassador Ajeli Breni left for his country after being excluded from a lunch meeting with Foreign Minister Jiménez and Arab ambassadors.

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS