The African Union has officially recognised Libya's National Transitional Council as the country's legitimate leadership, the group's chairman said Tuesday.
The announcement was transmitted by the office of South African President Jacob Zuma, six days after he hosted a meeting of the AU's special panel on Libya in Pretoria.
The AU's reluctance to formally recognise Libya's new leadership had created a split on the continent, as about 20 nations had already established ties.
The president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who holds the AU's rotating chair, made the announcement after consulting with the panel in New York, ahead of the UN General Assembly, the AU statement said.
Obiang Nguema "hereby announces that the African Union recognises the National Transitional Council (NTC) as the representative of the Libyan people as they form an all-inclusive transitional government that will occupy the Libyan seat at the African Union."
"The African Union stands ready to support the Libyan people... as they rebuild their country towards a united, democratic, peaceful and prosperous Libya," it said.
At the AU panel's meeting last week in Pretoria, the group had "committed itself to working with the NTC" but stopped short of formally recognising it.
The pan-African body has doggedly stuck to its own "roadmap" for the Libyan conflict and criticised the NATO bombing campaign -- even though the rebellion had rejected the AU proposal, insisting on the removal of Moamer Kadhafi from power.
But earlier this month, the NTC gave assurances that it would work to meet key AU concerns, promising that they remained committed to the African continent and to building national unity after Kadhafi's ouster, the statement said.
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The NTC also promised to protect foreign workers, including black Africans, following allegations that many had been detained on suspicions they had worked as mercenaries for Kadhafi.
"I don't think it's backtracking. At the end of the day more countries are recognising the transitional council," said Henning Snyman, senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs.
"President Zuma and the AU came out and said there are certain requirements that they have before they will recognise the NTC. I think the main one was that the NTC must assure them that they would involve everyone in the new government."
Kadhafi was a major financial backer of AU operations, and an advocate for stronger integration on the continent -- with himself at the helm.
He built a massive complex in his hometown of Sirte, which he hoped would become the capital of a United States of Africa, a drive that many nations including South Africa resisted.
"Everyone was a bit shellshocked," by Kadhafi's ouster, Snyman said. "If the strongman of Africa can be toppled, who is next? And if the strongman of Africa can be toppled with foreign intervention, who is next?"
Initially the AU's reluctance to deal with the new leadership in Tripoli stemmed from the group's policy against recognising power grabs by armed groups, said University of Pretoria analyst Laurence Caromba.
"The AU were sticking by its principles not to recognise an unconstitutional change in an African state or a coup," he told AFP.
"But there is a dangerous vacuum at the moment with the previous government which has fallen, and the new one hasn't consolidated, so it was forced to recognise the reality."