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The Libyan civil war is expected to figure prominently in discussions between visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron and President Jacob Zuma in Pretoria on Monday.
Zuma’s office announced yesterday that he would meet Cameron when he comes to South Africa on a working visit.
Sharp differences have emerged between South Africa, on the one side, and Britain and other Nato members on the other, about how to resolve the civil war which has been raging for five months between the forces of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his rebel enemies based in the eastern city of Benghazi.
Yesterday the International Contact Group, comprising Nato and other countries involved in the military coalition which is backing the rebels, met in Istanbul and recognised the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council (TNC) as the legitimate government of Libya.
South African officials had earlier warned against this decision, saying that legitimising the TNC and de-delegitimising Gaddafi’s government would mean embarking irrevocably on a course of “regime change” which would not solve Libya’s crisis.
Zuma’s Special Envoy on Libya Mac Maharaj had earlier told Independent Newspapers that although Gaddafi himself had agreed not to participate in a national dialogue proposed by the AU to find a solution solution, he needed to be represented indirectly in the dialogue to be able to persuade his considerable constituency to support the outcome.
Yesterday, other South African officials warned that simply removing Gaddafi from power as the International Contact Group (ICG) was demanding, risked handing over Libya to undemocratic forces.
They said the exact political allegiance of the TNC was unknown, but that it seemed to include a strong al-Qaeda element.
The officials said Pretoria was encouraged by statements from the French government this week that it was time to give negotiations a chance to resolve the conflict.
But, while there have been moves towards negotiations, there were no signs of war fatigue – especially not by Britain – at the ICG meeting in Istanbul yesterday. Russia and China, which have grown increasingly critical of the Nato military campaign, had been invited to attend but decided not to. Western diplomats based in Pretoria also expressed surprise that South Africa did not attend. It has had observer status at the group’s meeting.
The UN Secretary-General’s special envoy to Libya, Abdul Elah al-Khatib, was tasked by the group with presenting terms for Gaddafi to step down. But British Foreign Secretary William Hague said, at the same time as al-Khatib pursues a political settlement, “the military pressure on the regime will continue to intensify”.
Britain said it was sending four more Tornado reconnaissance planes to beef up the Nato mission. Such aircraft have become vital as Gaddafi’s forces have hidden their armour and artillery from Nato warplanes.
Britain said its warplanes had on Thursday destroyed a Libyan army armoured personnel carrier near Zlitan, west of the rebel stronghold of Misrata.
British aircraft have so far damaged or destroyed more than 500 Libyan military targets, including command and control sites. “But as the campaign has progressed, the regime is increasingly attempting to conceal troops, equipment and headquarters, often in populated areas,” a British military spokesman said.
Britain’s tough position on Gaddafi sets up a potentially heated meeting between Zuma and Cameron. It is understood that Cameron’s main purpose for the visit, at least officially, is to discuss UK investment and other economic ties with South Africa, but officials said Libya and other international issues were sure to be discussed. - Foreign Editor