British officials 'working with rebels in East'


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The Independent Online

A team of British officials is in face-to-face contact with rebel forces on the ground in Libya for the first time, as foreign ministers from more than 40 countries gather in London for a conference on the country's future.

The meeting will include Arab and North African nations including the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Tunisia. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, and the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, will also attend.

Officials hope the summit will endorse plans to set up a smaller "contact group" to lead the international community's negotiations with the Libyan rebels, alongside an announcement on humanitarian aid. Yesterday, David Cameron said British officials were liaising with rebel ground forces in eastern Libya. "We are actually now in proper contact with the rebels and a Foreign Office official is now having proper discussions with them, which I think is vital as we need to get to know and work with them and make these points with them," the Prime Minister told the Commons.

The team has been in Benghazi for several days and has held talks with the Interim National Transitional Council (INTC), which was set up in the city earlier this month. Yesterday, the INTC was endorsed by Mr Cameron for the first time. In a joint statement with the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, he said: "We call on all Libyans who believe that Gaddafi is leading Libya into a disaster to take the initiative now to organise a transition process. In our view, this could include the Interim National Transitional Council, the pioneering role of which we recognise, as well as all those prepared to join the process of transition to democracy."

Representatives of the INTC are expected to attend the London conference but will not participate directly.