TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made an unannounced visit to Libya on Tuesday to cement relations with the new leaders Washington helped install, offer aid and encourage them to follow through on a promise of swift elections.
Clinton arrived in Tripoli aboard a U.S. military aircraft to begin the one-day visit during which she was scheduled to meet leaders from the National Transitional Council (NTC), civil society activists and staff of the newly re-opened U.S. embassy.
She will announce a set of new programs designed to foster closer U.S.-Libyan ties including U.S. help for treating fighters wounded in Libya’s insurrection, resuming student exchange programs and more help for Libya’s effort to track down and destroy dangerous Gaddafi-era weaponry.
Clinton is the most senior U.S. official to visit Tripoli since rebel forces battling longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi seized the capital in August with the help of NATO warplanes.
U.S. officials said her visit underscored Washington’s hope to work with Libya’s new leaders as they guide the country toward elections and begin to reform its economy.
The United States took part in the NATO bombing campaign that helped install the NTC in power, although it was mostly in a support role with France and Britain in the lead. The French and British leaders visited Tripoli together last month.
Clinton’s visit was secret prior to her arrival in Tripoli and marked by tight security. U.S. officials said Clinton would discuss Libya’s plans for political transition with NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil, de facto prime minister Mahmoud Jibril and Ali Tarhouni, who holds both the finance and oil portfolios.
NTC forces are still fighting against remaining Gaddafi loyalists in his hometown Sirte and other pockets of resistance, while they are also seeking to bring under centralized control the plethora of rebel militias which sprang up in the revolt.
A senior U.S. official traveling with Clinton told reporters Clinton would discuss security while stressing the importance of the NTC sticking to its plan for an eight-month timeline toward elections once the country is fully under its control.
“The important thing is to be able to show the Libyan people that there is momentum,” the official said. “We’re pushing the (NTC) to be able to show the Libyan people that they’re serious in their commitments to transition, that they’re serious in their commitments to rule of law, that they’re serious about getting to those elections.”
The United States has contributed a total of about $140 million in aid to Libya since the start of the uprising. Clinton was expected to unveil funding for several more initiatives.
She will increase to about $40 million the U.S. contribution toward Libya’s effort to track down and destroy weapons including shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles that western officials fear could fall into militant hands.
Libya was thought to have had about 20,000 such missiles when the war against Gaddafi began in February. While large numbers were destroyed in NATO air strikes, experts believe many are still unaccounted for and NATO countries have said there is an urgent need to track them down.
Clinton will also announce new U.S. programs to help the NTC care for fighters wounded in the war, including working with the private sector to re-equip Libya’s hospitals and clinics, set up a patient tracking system and possibly bring some of the most severely wounded to the United States for treatment.
The United Nations has estimated that about 15,000 fighters were wounded in Libya’s war including about 1,500 amputees. U.S. officials say helping the NTC care for these casualties could help cement political support for the interim council.
“This has humanitarian aspects, but it also has political ramifications: that the people who fought for Libya’s future, fought for the new Libya, can be cared for by Libya’s governing institutions,” the senior U.S. official said.
Reporting By Andrew Quinn; Editing by Christian Lowe