Leaders of the Libyan uprising that overthrew Muammar Gadhafi sit down with world powers on Thursday to map out the country's rebuilding, 42 years to the day after the former strongman seized power in a coup.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose gamble to spearhead the West's intervention in Libya paid off this week when Gadhafi was driven from power, are hosting delegations from 60 countries and world bodies.
The tight three-hour agenda focuses on political and economic reconstruction, with Western powers anxious to avoid mistakes made in Iraq -- but talks on the sidelines may expose early jostling for opportunities in oil and infrastructure.
Libya, which boasts large reserves of top-quality crude oil, has been left badly underdeveloped by Gaddafi, who as a young army captain ousted Libya's King Idris on Sept. 1, 1969.
With Gadhafi driven from power this week in a popular revolt, the "Friends of Libya" conference will give the ruling interim council its first platform to address the world.
National Transition Council Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil will open the afternoon talks with an outline of the NTC's roadmap, which targets a new constitution, elections within 18 months and ways to avoid reprisals. He will later address an evening news conference along with Sarkozy and Cameron.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be at the talks along with European and African leaders and the heads of NATO, the United Nations and the European Union. Russia and China, which opposed the NATO intervention, will also be represented.
Russia earlier Thursday recognized the National Transitional Council (NTC) as Libya's legitimate authorities, moving to increase its influence in postwar reconstruction and protect its economic interests in the oil-producing North African nation
"The Russian Federation recognizes the National Transitional Council as the current authorities and takes note of its declared reform program, which calls for the development of a new constitution, the holding of general elections and the formation of a government," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Russia's statement, coming in the wake of the recent and apparent downfall of Libya's longtime ruler Muammar Gadhafi, came as a significant achievement for the NTC, especially in light of Moscow's consistent disapproval of NATO's military support for the Libyan rebels.
Moreover, Algeria stated that it would recognize the new Libyan government upon its formation.
EYES ON LONGER-TERM
Eager to meet immediate civilian needs, the NTC is expected to push for rapid access to billions of dollars in foreign-held Libyan assets frozen under UN sanctions on Gadhafi.
The United States and Britain have won UN permission to unfreeze $1.5 billion each of Libyan assets and France has received approval for the release of 1.5 billion euros (€2.16 billion) out of a total 7.6 billion euros.
Other European countries may follow suit, and while Thursday's talks are not supposed to be about funding pledges, some assistance or loans may be promised to aid the NTC, which is using money unfrozen earlier in France to buy wheat.
"We have to help the National Transitional Council because the country is devastated, the humanitarian situation is difficult and there's a lack of water, electricity and fuel," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on RTL radio.
The European Union, which has sent some 150 million euros in humanitarian aid to Libya, is preparing measures to help the NTC with justice, policing and security, education and financial management, EU sources say.
While officials are adamant the meeting is about securing political stability in Libya and doing things differently than in Iraq, French companies are planning a trade mission to get a head start on reconstruction contracts.
As well as big prospects for developing oil drilling, the end of the six-month conflict will open up big opportunities for infrastructure, construction, electric power, telecoms, water and tourism companies who are keen to challenge the privileged position enjoyed by Italian firms under Gaddafi's long rule.
The NTC has said those who took a lead role in backing their revolt will be rewarded. While Paris has sent company representatives to assess the situation, Britain is not planning any missions until the conflict is completely over.
"It seems that Britain is always slow out of the traps, although we are good at the over-arching politics," said John Hamilton, a director of research and publishing company Cross-border Information, who noted that Libya's banking sector would also be ripe for development.
"If someone can say Tripoli is safe, people will be out there as soon as possible."
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