TRIPOLI, Libya — British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy offered broad support for Libya’s new rulers Thursday, promising to unfreeze billions in assets and give help in finding Moammar Gadhafi, even as revolutionary forces attempted their first significant assault on the ousted leader’s hometown.
The Western leaders — the first to visit since Tripoli fell late last month — got a welcome worthy of rock stars from jubilant Libyans grateful for NATO airstrikes that helped turn the tide of the war in their favor.
Staff at a hospital in Tripoli applauded the two men as they visited patients who had been wounded in the fighting, and schoolchildren in the eastern city of Benghazi wore T-shirts that said “Generations will never forget the favors and support from Great Britain” and “Sarkozy: Benghazi loves you.”
But tight security in both cities was a reminder of the fact that Gadhafi is still on the run and his supporters are holding out in three major strongholds, including his hometown of Sirte.
Gadhafi’s spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, chided the foreign leaders for their short trip, claiming that pro-Gadhafi fighters “are everywhere.” He told the Syrian al-Rai TV station late Thursday, “This visit by Sarkozy and Cameron is a launch of an imperialist project in Libya.” Ibrahim did not say where he was, nor where Gadhafi was hiding.
In a surprise advance, revolutionary forces entered the outskirts of Sirte, 250 miles southeast of Tripoli along the Mediterranean coast, on Thursday and were facing rocket fire, according to a member of the military council from the nearby city of Misrata, which was leading the assault.
Ali Gliwan said fighters crossed a major highway overpass at the southwestern entrance of the city of about 100,000 people, met by rocket fire from Gadhafi loyalists. Jalal el-Gallal, a spokesman for Libya’s new leaders, said several thousand fighters were involved, backed with tanks and mechanized vehicles.
The fighters advanced into the city center, clashing with snipers holed up in a high-rise office tower — and with members of an elite unit of Gadhafi troops barricaded in a residence of the leader on the beach, Gliwan said. He reported four fighters on his side had been killed and seven wounded.
An Associated Press Television News reporter saw the bodies of four Gadhafi loyalists near a vehicle that apparently had been struck by NATO. Snipers fired at fighters in the center of town, although the revolutionary forces had largely pulled back to the outskirts by nightfall.
It was unclear how decisive the entry into Sirte was, however. Last week, fighters claimed to have fought their way into another loyalist stronghold, Bani Walid, west of Sirte, but they were driven back by powerful resistance and their movement there has stalled.
Gadhafi’s whereabouts remain a mystery, but his loyalists hold those two cities, the city of Sabha and other pockets in central and southern Libya.
Cameron acknowledged the fight wasn’t over and pledged NATO would continue to support the anti-Gadhafi fighters. He also offered the former rebels help in finding Gadhafi and bringing him to justice, although he wasn’t more specific.
He said his message for Gadhafi and those fighting for him was: “It is over. Give up.”
The visit aimed to give a significant boost to the National Transitional Council, the body of former rebels that is widely recognized as the new leadership but faces a major struggle in establishing its authority. Cameron and Sarkozy spoke at a press conference with the NTC head Mustafa Abdul-Jalil and the NTC’s prime minister Mahmoud Jibril, and toured sites alongside them.
Britain and France led international support for the rebellion and their countries were major contributors to NATO airstrikes that crippled Gadhafi’s military forces.
All that backing could put France and Britain in a good position to cash in on lucrative trade and oil business once the country gets on its feet. Abdul-Jalil said as far back as May that countries who sided early with the rebellion would “have the best opportunity in future contracts in Libya.”
He suggested similar on Thursday, although he promised to do what’s best for Libya in awarding contracts. “As a faithful Muslim people, we will appreciate these efforts and they will have priority within a framework of transparency,” he said.
Sarkozy denied any hidden agenda. “We did what we had to do because we believed it was the right thing,” he said.
The visit also gave a high-profile stage for Cameron and Sarkozy to boost their images at home amid domestic woes fueled by their sluggish economies.
The image of Cameron being cheered by people on the street gave him a chance to show a starkly different approach to international conflict from his predecessors, particularly ex-prime minister Tony Blair, whose popularity plummeted over the decision to join the divisive 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Where Blair and then-U.S. President George W. Bush pressed ahead without an additional U.N. Security Council resolution to explicitly authorize the invasion, Cameron and Sarkozy won approval in New York.
His approach also contrasts with Blair’s efforts to bring Gadhafi back into the international fold, a deal sealed with a 2004 meeting with the Libyan dictator in a tent on the outskirts of Tripoli.
Sarkozy, meanwhile, has seen his popularity ratings plummeting for months and the visit could boost his image as a statesman projects power on the world stage.
“This reinforces his international stature,” said Jerome Fourquet, director of opinion research at the Ifop polling agency in France. “When some people raised questions in France and in Europe, he held firm. So today, he wants to reap the fruits and the dividends of this role and political choice.”
Both leaders insisted their goal was to help the Libya get back on its feet.
Cameron said he would push for the release to the NTC of billions of dollars in Libyan assets that had been frozen to punish Gadhafi’s regime. To that end, he announced Britain and France would introduce a draft resolution to the U.N. Security Council on Friday authorizing the release of all Libyan assets, which analysts have said could be as high as $110 billion.
So far, the U.N. has unblocked about $6 billion from banks in the United States, Britain and France. Cameron said the new resolution would open up some 12 billion pounds ($18 billion) of assets in Britain alone.
The flow of more of the frozen funds from abroad could provide the NTC considerably more weight at home. It not only faces the task of winning control over the last Gadhafi strongholds, it also must rein in the numerous armed groups and factions under the former rebel umbrella.
NATO forces continued to go after the holdout loyalist forces. Airstrikes hit targets 24 targets on Wednesday, including several radar systems and surface-to-air missile systems near Sirte, Bani Walid and Sabha as well as smaller holdouts Waddan and Zillah, the alliance said.
From Tripoli, Sarkozy and Cameron flew to the eastern city of Benghazi, the birthplace of the rebellion, and addressed a crowd gathered at the city’s central square. People on the square cheered and hoisted banners that said: “Thank you Sarkozy. Thank you France” and “Thanks UK.”
Associated Press writers Rami al-Shaheibi in Benghazi, Ryan Lucas in Tripoli, David Stringer in London and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.