DOHA, Qatar — NATO, Arab and African ministers agreed Wednesday “to work urgently” with the Libyan rebel leadership to set up a mechanism by which some frozen assets belonging to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and his family might be transferred to the rebel cause.
The agreement came at the first meeting between representatives of the NATO-led coalition, regional leaders and the rebels in a closed-door conference here that was billed as the beginning of a continuing dialogue. The meeting came at a time of growing frictions among the allied countries and with the rebels themselves over how much military force to apply on the Qaddafi regime.
But those divisions were set aside — for the moment, at least.
“This is the money of the Libyans, not of Colonel Qaddafi,” said the Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, who added that the assistance would be aimed “at humanitarian and daily needs.”
He said, “People need food, or they need to pay salaries to workers.”
Rebel leaders in Benghazi received the news as an indication that the international community was prepared to sell them weapons in their struggle to overthrow Colonel Qaddafi.
“We have made a request to those friendly nations and those who have made their official recognition, and we are in the final stages of requesting military equipment,” said Abdul Hafidh Ghoga, a member of the rebels’ governing body, the Transitional National Council, and its spokesman.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any problem about getting military equipment in,” Mr. Ghoga said.
He cited a statement by Mr. Frattini that the Libyan rebels had “every right to purchase weapons for their self-protection.” However, Mr. Ghoga declined to reveal whether any concrete agreements for weapons shipments had been reached with the three countries that have recognized the council: Italy, France and Qatar.
“Today’s meeting in Doha was an extreme boost to the Transitional National Council as the sole representative of Libya,” Mr. Ghoga said.
While some of the participants in Wednesday’s meeting talked about the rebels’ right to arm themselves, it remained unclear whether any country had specifically agreed to provide them with weapons.
“The discussion about arming the rebels is definitely on the table to defend themselves,” a spokesman for the Italian Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.
However, other European countries have called for a political solution rather than a military one, and it seemed unlikely that the allied countries were prepared to send offensive weaponry to the rebels, at least not as a coalition. In comments to reporters, Belgium’s foreign minister, Steven Vanackere, noted that the United Nations resolution that authorized international action in Libya “speaks of protecting civilians, not arming civilians.”
Mr. Ghoga also said that any weapons sales should include technical advisers and trainers, but added, “Any military intervention is rejected on our part.
The rebels made it clear that they felt let down by the lower intensity of coalition military air activity in the days since the United States ceded leadership to NATO commanders.
“We are seeing less protection,” said a rebel spokesman, Mahmud Awad Shammam. “Misurata is being bombed every day. NATO is very slow responding to these attacks on the civilians.”
Those objections seemed to echo comments by a few of the most influential allied ministers themselves. “It would be useful to have more aircraft,” Foreign Secretary William Hague of Britain, told reporters at the conference. In recent days France’s foreign minister, Alain Juppé, has said that NATO should aim to destroy more of the Libyan government’s heavy weaponry.
Still other European ministers at the conference appeared to shy away from upgrading the military commitment, while the lower level American delegation made no public statements. Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, appeared to sum up the prevailing opinion when he said, “We will not see a military solution, but a political solution.”
But the rebels say that there cannot be a political solution until Colonel Qaddafi and his sons are out of power, and that ousting them will take military action.
The differing views were papered over in a final draft statement by the leaders of 21 countries, including Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. “It is for the people of Libya to choose their own government,” the communiqué said. “Participants in the Contact Group agreed to continue to provide support to the opposition.”
The statement was vague on how much financial aid they would send to the rebels, but said there was an agreement to provide a “temporary financial mechanism” that “could provide a method for the interim national council and international community to manage revenue to assist with short-term financial requirements and structural needs in Libya.” Ministers told reporters that money could come from frozen Libyan assets abroad.
“We have to transfer the money to who is really the owner,” said Mr. Westerwelle, the German foreign minister. “This money will reach the people of Libya.”
The rebels are already receiving some financial aid from Qatar, which is taking shipments of oil from the rebel-held port of Tobruk in exchange for petroleum products like diesel and gas and other humanitarian assistance.
The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said at the conference that as many as 3.6 million people could be seriously affected by the Libyan fighting and could need help from abroad. “It is critical that the international community act in concert,” he said, “that we speak with one voice, and that we continue to work in common cause on behalf of the Libyan people.”
Representatives of the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Cooperation Council for the Arab Gulf States were at the conference, and the African Union attended as an invited guest. NYT
Photo: United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, center, stands with top delegates in Doha, Qatar, where the Libya Contact Group meeting Wednesday, April 13, 2011.