Libya's rebels got a boost Tuesday with the unfreezing of about $1.6 billion in Libyan currency held in Britain as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed for urgent international support and billions more for the incoming government.
The U.N. chief said he was encouraged by events on the ground and told the Security Council "I think we can now hope for a quick conclusion to the conflict and an end to the suffering of Libya's people."
But at the same time, he warned that the humanitarian situation "demands urgent action," and he called on the U.N.'s most powerful body to continue to respond positively to requests from the opposition National Transitional Council for funds.
Ban spoke shortly after Britain announced that the Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against Libya had released 1.86 billion in Libyan dinar banknotes. Britain blocked the export of the bank notes, which were manufactured by British currency printer De La Rue, to comply with U.N. sanctions.
Britain said the banknotes, worth about 950 million British pounds or around $1.6 billion at the official exchange rates that applied before the start of the conflict, would be securely and rapidly delivered to the Central Bank of Libya.
"This represents another major step forward in getting necessary assistance to the Libyan people, building on the remarkable progress in recent days," British Foreign Secretary William Hague said. "These banknotes ... will help address urgent humanitarian needs, instill confidence in the banking sector, pay salaries of key public sector workers and free up liquidity in the economy."
The sanctions committee released $1.5 billion in frozen Libyan assets in American banks last Thursday which the U.S. is earmarking for the crash-strapped rebels. Germany said it asked the committee last Friday to unfreeze 1 billion euros (about $1.45 billion) and France has asked for the unfreezing of $5 billion euros (about $7.25 billion).
The National Transitional Council, which controls most of the country, says it urgently needs at least $5 billion in frozen assets to pay state salaries and maintain services in Libya, including in areas still under Moammar Gadhafi's control, as well as for salaries for an army and a police force to restore order and confiscate arms.
Analysts estimate that as much as $110 billion is frozen in banks worldwide.
Ban told the council he has spoken several times over the past week with Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the head of the National Transitional Council, about the U.N. role in Libya in the months ahead, including in election asssistance, justice and policing, and addressing urgent humanitarian needs.
The discussions will continue Thursday at a summit in Paris hosted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy which Ban said he will attend along with senior U.N. officials who have been working on plans for the post-Gadhafi era. The secretary-general is expected to meet with Abdul-Jalil on the sidelines.
"I cannot overstate the urgency of this moment," Ban said. "Time is of the essence."
He said his aim is to get U.N. staff on the ground as quickly as possible "under a robust Security Council mandate" to coordinate the global response under Libyan leadership.
"Libya's future is for Libyans to decide," Ban stressed. "We will act in accordance with their needs and desires and not vice versa."
On the humanitarian front, he said, the opposition discovered large caches of food and medical supplies over the weekend, apparently stockpiled by the Gadhafi regime. He said hospitals are reopening and Tripoli's seaport is functioning, but "water supplies are critically short."
Ian Martin, Ban's envoy focusing on the post-Gadhafi era, reiterated to reporters that the National Transitional Council does not want any U.N. military observers or international military force.
"It's very clear that the Libyans want to avoid any kind of military deployment of the U.N. or others," he said.
But Martin said the U.N. does expect the council to ask for U.N. assistance in establishing a police force.
"They are very seriously interested in assistance with policing to get the public security situation under control and gradually develop a democratically accountable public security force," he said after briefing the council behind closed doors.