Libyan PM denies training Syrian rebels

AP News
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Posted: Mar 08, 2012 12:38 PM
Libyan PM denies training Syrian rebels

Libya's prime minister on Thursday denied Russian allegations that his government is hosting and supporting a training camp for Syrian rebels but said his country stands with the people of Syria opposed to President Bashar Assad's regime.

Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib said he was unaware of any such facility and that if one was operating in Libya it was doing so without authorities' knowledge. He added, however, that the Libyan government does support the "good" cause of Syrians opposed to Assad.

"We, I believe, were the first country to recognize the Syrian transitional council and we did it because we felt that the Syrian cause is a good cause," el-Keib told reporters at the State Department after meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. "It's people raising their voice asking for freedom."

"As far as training camps, unless this is something that is done without government permission, which I doubt, I am not aware of any," he said.

On Wednesday, Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, accused Libya of establishing a "a special training center for Syrian revolutionaries." Churkin did not elaborate but complained that training fighters to attack Syria's government was undermining stability in the Middle East.

El-Keib, who saw President Barack Obama at White House on Wednesday, is in Washington to thank lawmakers and the administration for their support in backing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's ouster and offering continued assistance as Libya prepares for elections in June.

He said the situation in Syria now _ where the Assad regime is brutally suppressing an uprising against four decades of iron-fisted family rule _ is comparable to last year's revolt against Gadhafi.

Clinton noted some similarities but stressed that Syria still lacks "what we saw coming out of Libya with the unity and vision that the Transitional National Council presented to the world" and the opposition's "close linkage between the civilians representatives and the fighters."

"They presented a unified presence that created an address as to where to go to help them, a lot of confidence in their capacities on the ground, their commitment to the kind of inclusive democracy that Libya's now building," Clinton said as el-Keib stood beside her.

"We are working closely with the Syrian opposition to try to assist them to be able to present that kind of unified front and resolve," she said. She called that unity "essential against the brutal Assad regime."

NATO, led by the United States, launched military operations to protect civilians at the height of the Libyan crisis but there is little appetite for doing so in Syria. The administration has argued that the Syrian opposition is not nearly as cohesive as the Libyan opposition and does not have a base, as the Libyans did in the eastern city of Benghazi.

In addition, the Syrian government has far more effective air defenses.

Meanwhile, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry said Thursday that the Assad regime's violent crackdown by should not be tolerated, but the world must respond "in a responsible way."

Kerry noted stark differences on the ground between Syria and Libya at the time the United States and others intervened. Asked about U.S. intervention, the Democrat said: "Is that the right thing to do tomorrow or the next day? I think not."

The U.S. "can't just jump up some morning and say, `Let's go and drop some bombs on Syrian tanks'," he told CBS television's "This Morning" show.

Kerry's Senate colleague, Republican John McCain, has called for the United States to arm the Syrian opposition forces and lead an international coalition with airstrikes against Assad's regime to end the slaughter. But that proposal has drawn little support in Congress, the Obama administration or among the Republican presidential candidates.

Both Kerry and McCain ran unsucessfully for the presidency.

White House hopeful Mitt Romney, who has been endorsed by McCain, said this week that he was not prepared to support military action against Syria. Newt Gingrich opposes sending U.S. troops or equipment to Syria, arguing that "expanding our military activity into Syria would be stretching our capacity in the Middle East," according to spokesman R.C. Hammond.

Rick Santorum favors providing military equipment to the Syrian people but stopped short of backing airstrikes. "As far as direct support _ and Senator McCain's talking about air support _ I'm not quite prepared to go there at this point in time," Santorum said this week.