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A rebel fighter jumps into a truck headed for the front lines near the city of Zintan in western Libya on June 13, 2011. (ANIS MILI/REUTERS)
A rebel fighter jumps into a truck headed for the front lines near the city of Zintan in western Libya on June 13, 2011. (ANIS MILI/REUTERS)

Canada recognizes Libya's rebel council as legitimate voice Add to ...

The Canadian government has recognized Libya's rebel council as the legitimate voice of the country's people, opening diplomatic ties with the fractious and murky umbrella organization for the opposition to Moammar Gadhafi.

And as Parliament delivered overwhelming support for a 3 1/2-month extension to Canada's military mission on Tuesday - only Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, citing a concern about mission creep, voted against it - the NDP warned it won't back any more extensions or support participation in a long-running civil war.

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The mission has escalated since MPs first voted in March, from enforcing a no-fly zone to a bombing campaign clearly aimed at dislodging Col. Gadhafi from power. But the government and opposition parties negotiated an amended resolution that declared the Canadian mission was aimed at protecting civilians, and that efforts to find a political solution would be stepped up.

The day was marked by the Conservative government's pledge to broaden its approach beyond the military mission, committing $2-million in humanitarian aid, more "robust" diplomatic efforts, and recognizing the rebels' National Transition Council as the "legitimate representative" of the Libyan people.

That isn't a full, formal recognition of the council as Libya's government - it controls only part of the country. But the rare step of recognizing a rebel faction means that, in Canada's official view, the council is the voice of Libyans, and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and envoys will launch formal talks with its leaders.

Mr. Baird said Ottawa will soon detail a plan to assist the rebels' council - and though he didn't explicitly rule out providing funding or even arms, he maintained that the priorities will be governance, humanitarian assistance and diplomacy.

He brushed off concerns that some members of the patchwork Transition Council might not actually be seeking the kind of democracy Western allies want.

"I can tell you, whatever happens, they couldn't be any worse than Col. Gadhafi," Mr. Baird said, noting that parts of Libya's military and civilian leadership have defected and "well-respected" figures have joined.

The Canadian step followed the lead of allies like France, Italy and Spain, and appeared to be part of a co-ordinated international move to recognize the council formally; Germany and the United Arab Emirates extended recognition this week.

But it raises concerns, too: while the council has managed to establish a somewhat cohesive role as spokesman for the rebels, some tribal forces and rebel military leaders seem to be at least partly independent from its control, said Daniel Byman, a Georgetown University expert on the region.

Based in the eastern city of Benghazi, the council includes defectors from Col. Gadhafi's regime, like its chairman, former justice minister Mustafa Abdul Jalil, but also a hodge-podge of secular opposition and tribal leaders from Eastern Libya, as well as Islamist elements. Just how it will evolve, and how well it controls the opposition forces, remains unclear.

"We don't know how in control it is. We don't have a good sense of whether it can legitimately speak for most Libyans," Mr. Byman said.

Countries like Canada hope international recognition of the council will encourage more defections from Col. Gadhafi's regime, and facilitate a stable transition, rather than more civil war between factions, if Col. Gadhafi does go. Both the Liberals and NDP backed the move, saying it's important to support a Libyan entity that can help lead a transition.

Col. Gadhafi remains defiant - and NATO has escalated air strikes, heavily bombing Tripoli and Gadhafi compounds in a war that is now clearly aimed at ousting him. Canada has sent seven CF-18 fighters to join air strikes, a warship, surveillance and refuelling planes, and more than 650 aviators, sailors and soldiers.

That military mission won't change, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said, and air strikes on Libyan government command centres "must and will continue."

Although the Conservatives last week said clearly that the goals of the mission could not be reached if Col. Gadhafi remains in power, Mr. Baird, seeking opposition support, has stressed since Sunday that the goal of the military mission is to protect civilians, while the "political" goal is to see Col. Gadhafi go.

The NDP accepted those assertions - but warned it won't support an extension past September. By then, they said, it will no longer be humanitarian intervention, but a full-blown civil war in which Canada would have to choose between sending ground troops or getting out.

"After six months - in September it will be six months - we will be in a very different situation," said NDP Leader Jack Layton. "It would an almost permanent conflict, longer, and more involved."

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