Libya: Contact group creates fund for rebels

Libyan rebel fighter at Ajdabiya, eastern Libya - 3 May 2011
Image caption Libya's rebels say they need more money to keep fighting Col Muammar Gaddafi's forces

The international contact group on Libya has agreed to create a temporary fund to assist rebel groups, during talks in Rome.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe says the fund should be operational within weeks.

The group of Nato countries, Arab states and other nations are discussing ways to increase pressure on Col Muammar Gaddafi.

Meanwhile, a ship evacuating people from Misrata has arrived in Benghazi.

Urgent request

Speaking in Rome, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the creation of a new financial mechanism would "permit funds to be channelled effectively and transparently" to the rebels.

The move followed an urgent request from the rebels, based in the eastern city of Benghazi.

The rebels' Transitional National Council says it needs $2bn-$3bn (£1.2bn-£1.8bn) in the coming months for military salaries, food, medicine and other basic supplies.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague insisted that any financial assistance to the rebels would not be spent on weapons.

Image caption The Libya Contact Group has been looking at ways to fund the Libyan uprising against Col Gaddafi

"This [money] will help them to keep basic services going... because in the east of Libya they still need to be educating people, to keep public services moving and they have to meet the expenses of all that and they don't have much tax revenue at the moment," he said.

Mr Hague said efforts would also be made to explore how Col Gaddafi's government could be prevented from exporting oil or importing refined products.

The UK has already provided $21.5m (£13m) in aid to the rebels.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US was trying to free more than $30bn it had frozen in Libyan assets.

She said the government wanted "to tap some portion of those assets owned by Gaddafi and the Libyan government in the United States, so we can make those funds available to help the Libyan people".

Washington has already pledged $53m (£32m) in humanitarian aid and authorised up to $25m (£15m) in assistance to the rebels, including medical supplies, boots, tents, rations and protective gear. The first shipment is due to arrive in Benghazi in the coming days.

Diplomats expelled

Meanwhile the aid ship - Red Star - chartered by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), has managed to take 1,300 passengers to Benghazi, despite being hit by shellfire as it docked. Five people were killed.

Amid scenes of panic, families were separated and the ship had to re-dock twice before finally setting sail with mostly wounded people and stranded foreign workers.

They arrived in Benghazi tired and bedraggled, says the BBC's John Sudworth.

Rebel forces in Libya hold much of the east of the country, around Benghazi, while Col Gaddafi holds most of the west.

Nato is enforcing a UN mandate to protect civilians caught in the conflict.

In a report to the UN Security Council, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said between 500 and 700 people were believed to have been killed in Libya in February alone - the month the conflict began.

He said he was seeking warrants for the arrest of top Libyan officials, but did not name them.

On Wednesday, Britain announced it was expelling two more Libyan diplomats, after the ambassador was ordered out of the country last weekend.

"I judged that the behaviour of these individuals had become unacceptable, and that they should therefore be declared persona non grata," said Foreign Secretary William Hague.

He did not explain exactly why they were being expelled beyond saying "their activities were contrary to the interests of the UK".