France backs Libyan rebel council, to send envoy

France backs Libyan rebel council, to send envoy

Paris: France said on Thursday it would recognise the Libyan National Council, a rebel body fighting to oust Moammar Gadhafi, as the legitimate representative of Libya’s people.

People near the National Council’s headquarters in Benghazi cheered, honked horns and some fired guns in air to celebrate the news and officials there said France was the first country in the world to make the move.

Paris’s decision was relayed to reporters by an official at the Elysee Palace offices of President Nicolas Sarkozy after he met two representatives of the Libyan National Council.

“France recognises the National Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people. There will be an exchange of ambassadors between Paris and Benghazi," said the official.

The annoucement came as NATO and the European Union begin talks on Thursday on a possible “no-fly" zone over Libya after some of the fiercest fighting of the three-week-old uprising against Moammar Gadhafi.

A French diplomatic source said: “It’s a political signal of encouragement and we hope that the European Union will follow suit."

Regarding wider recognition, German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle sounded a cautious note.

“This will have to wait for consultations held by the EU and the Special Representative of the United Nations. Before we undertake such political steps, we must of course know who we’re dealing with."

European Union foreign ministers were meeting in Brussels on Thursday and EU leaders are due to meet there on Friday, in part to discuss Libya. NATO defence ministers were also meeting. One EU diplomat said the 27-member EU was exploring the possiblity of opening a representative office in east Libya but was only in the early stages of developing the idea.

France, slow like most other countries to respond when the upheaval in North Africa started in Tunsia, a former colony, is seeking to play a more decisive role in events in Libya.