U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated on Thursday she was planning to meet Libyan opposition leaders during an upcoming visit to the Mideast, amid a global debate as to the ways in which the international community should intervene in what has fast become a full-on civil war in the north-African country.
The planned visit to Egypt and Tunisia would be make Clinton the most senior American official to visit the region after popular revolts toppled U.S.-allied governments in both countries.
Clinton told the House of Representatives appropriations committee on Thursday that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama was keeping all options on the table for possible stronger measures on Libya, and was seeking to build bridges to Libyan opposition figures.
"We are standing with the Libyan people as they brave bombs and bullets to demand that Gadhafi must go now," Clinton said.
"We are reaching out to the opposition inside and outside of Libya. I will be meeting with some of those figures both here in the United States and when I travel next week to discuss what more the United States and others can do."
Earlier Thursday, an official at French President Nicolas Sarkozy's said that France recognized the rebel Libyan National Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, office said on Thursday.
The official said France would be sending an ambassador to Benghazi and receiving a Libyan envoy in Paris.
He was speaking after a meeting between Sarkozy and officials from the Libyan National Council.
Both sides in Libya are lobbying for support from Western countries as their leaders debate whether to protect the rebels from Gadhafi's air force by putting a no-fly zone over some or all of the country.
Clinton's trip takes place as the Obama administration seeks to understand how the political transformation of the Middle East will affect U.S. interests and those of its key regional ally, Israel.
Speaking for her planned trip to Egypt and Tunisia, Clinton said on Thursday that she intended "to convey strong support of the Obama administration and the American people, that we wish to be a partner in the important work that lies ahead as they embark on a transition to a genuine democracy."
"We have an enormous stake in ensuring that Egypt and Tunisia provide models for the kind of democracy that we want to see."
Clinton's visit will allow her to personally assess the situation in Egypt, where the Obama administration gave support to protesters who ultimately forced the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, long a staunch U.S. ally, in February.
She will also talk to transitional government officials in Tunisia, which launched the wave of political turmoil sweeping the Arab world with mass protests that toppled President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali in January
Egypt and Tunisia both border Libya, where leader Muammar Gadhafi's increasingly bloody battle against rebels seeking to end his 41-year rule has spurred rising calls for international action.
Clinton will also consult with Libya's neighbors on possible next steps against Gadhafi, whose military strikes against rebel forces have prompted rising calls for international action.
The United States has joined relief efforts for thousands of people fleeing Libya's unrest into both Egypt and Tunisia, but has not yet embraced suggestions of a military response including establishing a no-fly zone over the country.
Washington has backed what it calls an orderly transition in Egypt, where the military is overseeing a temporary government with plans for a constitutional referendum and new elections for both parliament and president.
Caretaker authorities in Tunisia are also shepherding through political changes ahead of elections for a new national constituent assembly in July.
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