Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is joining top officials from dozens of countries to hear Libya's rebels spell out what they need in financial aid and other assistance to stabilize the Arab country.
Clinton, who left Washington on Wednesday night to attend the conference scheduled for Thursday in Paris, hopes to announce that $1.5 billion in Gadhafi regime assets frozen in the United States have been distributed on behalf of the rebels, U.S. officials said.
That money, about half of the liquid portion of the more than $30 billion in frozen Libyan assets, was freed up last week when the U.N. Security Council eased sanctions against Libya. European nations are now seeking similar U.N. authorization to release billions more in frozen assets that they hold.
"We have supported the unfreezing of this small, limited amount of money _ not so small, $1.5 billion _ to begin to meet their immediate humanitarian and governance needs," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday.
Although some U.S. lawmakers have asked Clinton to link the release of the assets to the case of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, Nuland said the administration will continue to press Libyan rebels to review the case but will not hold up the transfer of funds because of it.
The rebel-backed Transitional National Council is expected to present a detailed list of requests at the conference, topped by access to the billions of dollars in assets of Moammar Gadhafi's government that are frozen around the world. They may also seek short-term loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, U.S. officials said. While they do not want international peacekeepers, the rebels may seek some kind of civilian U.N. police presence, the officials said.
The Gadhafi opposition has pledged to look at the handling of the al-Megrahi case once it has established itself as a fully functioning government.
Al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence agent, is the only person convicted in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. He was released from a Scottish prison two years ago while reportedly suffering from terminal cancer and returned to a hero's welcome in Libya. He is now reported near death.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called on the Obama administration to withhold U.S. support for the rebels until al-Megrahi is jailed and independently examined by medical professionals to determine his health status. At least one Republican presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, has urged the administration to demand that the opposition arrest and extradite al-Megrahi.
"There is no justifiable basis for the rebels' decision to shield this convicted terrorist," Schumer wrote in a letter to Clinton.
New York's other senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey have also made the al-Megrahi case an issue.
Nuland said the Libyan opposition's most important tasks are finishing its apparent victory over Gadhafi, restoring stability and starting a democratic transition. She noted it was Gadhafi, not his foes, who had treated al-Megrahi as a hero.
"We all have to take a hard line, and we have been, on Megrahi and anybody else who has blood on their hands from the Lockerbie bombing, and we will continue to do so," Nuland told reporters. "We are very gratified by the fact that they have made clear that they are willing to look into this. We will continue to talk to them about it, and we will certainly make sure that Congress' views are conveyed."