June 22, 2011 11:30 pm

China fetes top Libyan rebel leader

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China feted a top leader of Libya’s rebel forces in the Chinese capital on Wednesday in the strongest sign yet that Beijing is trying to hedge its bets in the oil-rich North African nation.

In a meeting with Mahmoud Jibril, chairman of the executive board of the Libyan National Transitional Council, China’s foreign minister Yang Jiechi described the rebel group as a “major political force” and “an important dialogue partner”.

“Since its creation the NTC has increased its representation daily and gradually become a major political force,” Mr Yang said, according to a statement.

The rebel leader was in Beijing for a two-day visit described as a “great victory” by a member of the NTC speaking on Al Jazeera television.

“We know that China is not very interested in world revolutions but this gesture is a strong signal that the Libyans have made great achievements and that the Gaddafi regime will end soon,” Dr Muhammad Nasr, member of the NTC, said in a satellite interview with the Doha-based satellite channel.

Earlier this month, Mr Yang also met Abdul Ati al-Obeidi, foreign minister in the Gaddafi regime, in Beijing. But China has stepped up contacts with the rebels in eastern Libya in the last few weeks.

China’s ambassador to Qatar met with Mustafa Abdel Jalil, NTC chairman, in Doha on June 2 and soon afterward a Chinese diplomat stationed in Egypt travelled to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi where he met Mr Jalil and inspected the property of Chinese businesses.

Before the uprising began in February, Chinese companies were involved in around 50 large-scale construction projects in Libya, with a total value of $18.8bn, according to Chinese media reports quoting a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Commerce.

Once fighting broke out, China conducted its largest ever evacuation of Chinese civilians from a foreign country, with a land, sea and air operation that evacuated nearly 36,000 of its citizens, most of whom were working in the rail, oil and telecom sectors.

In the early stages of the conflict China already seemed to be hedging its bets by first abstaining from a UN Security Council vote on whether to allow NATO to use force to protect civilians but then publicly and repeatedly denouncing the resolution.

Around the time of the UN vote, officials in the Gaddafi regime hinted that Libya could be willing to offer more oil concessions to developing countries that refused to support the NATO mission, specifically including China, Chinese media reported.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the US State Department said the US was “interested” to see the diplomacy between the NTC and China but said Beijing “can also increase its support for the [NTC] and support the goals of [UN Resolutions] 1973 and 1970, and that is the strong message that we hope comes out of the [NTC]’s visit to Beijing.”

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