The British and French leaders have spearheaded NATO's campaign to protect Libyan civilians
French President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and British Prime Minister David Cameron (right) arrive at the Corinthia hotel in Tripoli. British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have arrived in Tripoli on the first visit by foreign leaders to the new Libya. © Leon Neal - AFP
The British and French leaders have spearheaded NATO's campaign to protect Libyan civilians
Last updated: September 16, 2011

Libya's new leaders welcome Cameron and Sarkozy

British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Tripoli on Thursday on the first visit by foreign leaders to the new Libya.

The two men, whose forces spearheaded the NATO air war that helped topple Moamer Kadhafi, are immensely popular among ordinary Libyans for their role in ending the fugitive strongman's 42 years of iron-fisted rule.

They were to hold talks with the head of the National Transitional Council (NTC), Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who earlier gave assurances that Tripoli had been sufficiently secured since its capture from Kadhafi forces last month for the visit to go ahead.

"We say to the leaders coming tomorrow (Thursday) that they will be safe," he told the BBC the night before.

AFP correspondents in the capital reported a massive security operation on Thursday with roadblocks along the road in from Metiga airport on the eastern outskirts and a luxury hotel in the city centre cordoned off by security forces backed up by French officers.

Sarkozy was accompanied by Foreign Minister Alain Juppe on what Finance Minister Francois Baroin described as an "historic" visit, an AFP correspondent travelling with them said.

A statement from Cameron's office said that he was accompanied by Foreign Secretary William Hague.

"He is expected to announce a further package of UK assistance to support the Libyan-led process of transition to a free, democratic and inclusive Libya," Downing Street said.

The British and French leaders were expected to spend no more than a few hours in Tripoli before heading on to Libya's second largest city Benghazi, which served as the rebels' base during their seven-month uprising against Kadhafi.

As well as meeting NTC officials, they were expected to visit a hospital and hold a news conference.

In Benghazi, Sarkozy aides said he would address the crowd in Tahrir Square, the emblematic focal point of the uprising.

The visit by the two European leaders came as NTC forces are still battling Kadhafi loyalists in a swathe of territory from his hometown of Sirte on the Mediterranean coast through a string of Saharan oases towards the southern border.

A huge convoy of pick-up trucks mounted with heavy weapons massed on the coast west of Sirte early on Wednesday in readiness for what commanders said would be a pincer movement against the city, an AFP correspondent reported.

Half of the column massed at Tawurgha, south of Libya's third-largest city Misrata, would advance straight along the coast road, commanders said.

The other half would strike south into the desert towards the town of Waddan in the Al-Jufra oasis in a bid to cut Sirte off from Kadhafi's other principal bastion, the south's largest city Sabha, they added.

Abdel Jalil appealed in the BBC interview for new weapons deliveries to help capture Kadhafi's last remaining bastions and complete his country's liberation.

He said that many of Kadhafi's remaining forces had now massed in the far south and that the NTC needed more arms to defeat them.

"There will be fierce battles in Sabha with equipment that we do not yet have, and we ask for more equipment to retake these places," he said.

During the seven-month uprising that ended Kadhafi's 42 years of iron-fisted rule, France made controversial arms drops to rebels in the Nafusa Mountains southwest of Tripoli, insisting they did not violate a UN arms embargo imposed on Libya.

Relying heavily on British and French aircraft, NATO has kept up a daily bombardment of Kadhafi's remaining outposts since the fall of Tripoli to NTC forces last month.

On Wednesday, the alliance said it had hit nine targets around Sirte, seven around Waddan and one in Zillah, another Al-Jufra oasis town further east.

A commander of one of the NTC brigades massing in Tawurgha said there were many hundreds of heavily armed vehicles involved in the looming offensive.

"This convoy, I can't give you the exact number, but it is about 500 vehicles or more," Fawzy Sawawy, a commander of the Mountains Brigade told AFP.

"We are going to surround and free Sirte," he said.

"We want to clear the road from Ras Jadid (on the Tunisian border in the far west) to Sallum (on the Egyptian border in far east)."

Kadhafi spokesman Mussa Ibrahim accused Libya's new rulers of "starving" loyalist areas in their bid to subjugate them.

"Daily life in Sirte and Bani Walid (a desert town to its southwest) is very difficult," Ibrahim, who is also a cousin of the toppled tyrant, told Syria-based Arrai television.

"They are starving entire regions to force the people to give themselves up," he said.

"They have cut off electricity and water as well as supply routes and are preventing food and medicines from coming in, thereby violating all international norms."

Ibrahim, who did not say where he was, said Kadhafi was in "perfect health" and that his morale was up but did not indicate the fugitive strongman's whereabouts.

Kadhafi had earlier appealed from his hideout for the international community to help his hometown of Sirte.

"It is the duty of the world not to leave (Sirte) alone, and everyone must assume their international duty and immediately come to stop this crime," Kadhafi said in a message broadcast on Arrai.

Ibrahim said the battle for Sirte was "near," and added: "We are ready for war, even if it lasts for years."

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