Britain invites Libyan rebels to take over embassy
Britain recognised Libya's rebel council as the country's legitimate government Wednesday after dramatically expelling all remaining diplomats loyal to Moamer Gathafi from the London embassy.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said he had invited the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) to take over the embassy and appoint an official envoy in a major boost for the movement fighting Gathafi's regime.
Rebel supporters unfurled the red, black and green flag of the Libyan opposition outside the embassy after Hague's announcement, although the Gathafi regime's green flag still flew from the building itself on Wednesday afternoon.
"The prime minister and I have decided that the United Kingdom recognises and will deal with the National Transitional Council as the sole governmental authority in Libya," Hague told a news conference in London.
"We are inviting the National Transitional Council to appoint a new Libyan diplomatic envoy to take over the Libyan embassy in London."
He added: "We summoned the Libyan charge d'affaires to the Foreign Office today and informed him that he and the other regime diplomats from the Gathafi regime must leave the UK.
"We no longer recognise them as the representatives of the Libyan government."
Britain would also unlock £91 million ($149 million, 102 million euros) of Libyan oil assets frozen under a UN Security Council resolution so that the rebels could benefit from them, Hague said.
"This will help to ensure that the crucial provision of fuel is maintained. We will work hard with our international partners in the coming weeks to unfreeze further Libyan assets."
Britain is one of the lead nations in a NATO-led alliance that has conducted an aerial campaign against Gathafi's regime since March, when the UN approved action to protect civilians.
London's move comes nearly two weeks after the Libya contact group, a body of major Western and regional powers, recognised the the NTC as Libya's legitimate government.
Outside the embassy, in London's plush Knightsbridge district, about 20 demonstrators chanted: "We want to say thank you UK."
Security guards said they could not raise the rebel flag on the building as Gathafi's diplomats were still moving out.
Protester Muftah Abdelsamad, 57, who has lived in Britain since 1976, told AFP: "I was so happy I cried. We have been wanting this for six months now.
"It will put pressure on Gathafi to leave the country because there is no other way for him. Soon we will have freedom and democracy in Libya."
Hamad Khatab added: "They deserve this decision. Get out! We call them Gathafi's rats because they support the killer, the murderer, they deserve to be kicked out."
On Monday, Hague reiterated Britain's demands for Gathafi to step down but said the Libyan leader may be allowed to remain in the north African country in an apparent shift in London's position.
Britain expelled Libya's ambassador in May after attacks on the British embassy in Tripoli, and has also already kicked out several other diplomats including the military attache.
It has no diplomatic representation in Tripoli but a Foreign Office special representative is based in Benghazi, the eastern city which is home to the NTC.
"We will deal with the NTC on the same basis as other governments around the world," Hague said.
"We are dealing with them as if they are the state of Libya."
He added that Gathafi's "brutality against the Libyan people has stripped him of all legitimacy."
Guma Al-Gamaty, the NTC co-ordinator in Britain, told BBC radio he would not become the new ambassador but hailed the decision.
"This is about a great move. We welcome this move and we are grateful to the British government for this step. It's very significant," he said.
The London embassy, known under Gathafi's regime as the Libyan People's Bureau, has had a chequered history. British policewoman Yvonne Fletcher was shot from the embassy in 1984 while policing a peaceful demonstration there.