British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have been warmly welcomed by jubilant crowds in Benghazi on their first visit to Libya since the fall of Gaddafi.
Hundreds of Libyans cheered and waved flags as Cameron and Sarkozy congratulated Libya’s National Transitional Council and vowed to stand by Libya.
They were greeted with rapturous applause in Bengahzi after earlier holding talks with the NTC in the capital Tripoli.
Their visit came as the NTC said its forces had made a “major advance” and had reached the outskirts of Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, one of the last remaining strongholds.
At a joint press conference, leaders of Libya’s interim government praised the UK and France for their “continued protection of civilians.”
The UK is to release a further £600m of previously frozen Libyan assets as part of a package of measures to “support the Libyan-led process of transition to a free, democratic and inclusive Libya,” according to Downing Street.
Mr Cameron also announced that Britain will provide 50 places at specialist hospitals in the UK to treat critically injured Libyans and help with de-mining efforts across the country.
Both he and Mr Sarkozy pledged to continue Nato’s mission under a UN mandate to protect Libyan civilians until all Gaddafi forces were defeated.
Britain played a role which I’m very proud of, but in the end this was what the Libyans did themselves and I wanted to come and congratulate them and work out how we can help next as they rebuild their country. David Cameron
Mr Cameron said he was “delighted” to be in the Libyan capital to show his support to the National Transitional Council but warned that Nato’s role was not over.
“There’s still more work to be done, there’s still a long way to go.
“Britain played a role which I’m very proud of, but in the end this was what the Libyans did themselves and I wanted to come and congratulate them and work out how we can help next as they rebuild their country.”
After meeting at the airport, Mr Cameron and Mr Sarkozy flew by helicopter to the Tripoli Medical Centre where they were was greeted by jubilant crowds of medical staff, who chanted “Thank you, thank you”, and “Libya is free, Gaddafi go away”.
The Libyan people have warmly welcomed the leaders, who they credit with helping rebel fighters take Tripoli. “Merci Sarkozy” and “Thank you Britain” are now common graffiti slogans which can be seen on the streets of the Libyan capital.
The pair visited rebel fighters in hospital wards, including patients recovering from torture in Gaddafi’s prison cells.
Dr Mahmoud Abu Hafez told the Prime Minister that all of Tripoli’s hospitals were swamped with casualties as the fighting raged but the situation now was “fairly safe”.
“We have many victims of sniper bullets and some hit by anti-aircraft guns,” said Dr Hafez.
Downing Street said Mr Cameron and Mr Sarkozy were due to meet Libyan leaders before flying on to Benghazi later in the day.
Despite the arrival of this high-profile delegation, heavy fighting continues on the streets of several Libyan cities.
On the eve of the visit, NTC leader Jalil requested more help to fight Gaddafi’s forces.
He said heavy battles lay ahead against Gaddafi loyalists who had refused to surrender.
Loyalists still control parts of Bani Walid and the strongholds of Sirte and Jufra, but he said fighters had forced many pro-Gaddafi forces to flee to Sabha in the southern desert.
Gaddafi himself remains in hiding, but many of his inner circle, including relatives and generals, have fled to neighbouring Niger.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to visit Libya on Friday. Egypt’s foreign minister, Mohammed Kamel Amr is also due to visit. A US assistant secretary of state visited on Wednesday.
Nato countries and their neighbours are keen to welcome Libya back into the international community and restart lucrative oil production which has been frozen by six months of war.
It is hoped the visit by Mr Cameron and Mr Sarkozy will help the NTC establish a stable government in the capital.
The NTC said it would name a more inclusive government line-up within days, but it would remain based in Benghazi until the “liberation” of other cities in the hands of Gaddaf supporters.
Many UN countries, including all five permanent members of the UN Security Council, have recognised the NTC as Libya’s legitimate authority. But the African Union has yet to do so, after meetings on Wednesday.