TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI (Reuters) - Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron landed in Libya to a heroes' welcome on Thursday, promising help for the new rulers that French and British air power helped to install and being told the favour may be repaid in business contracts.
Just three weeks after rebels backed by NATO bombers overran the capital, French President Sarkozy and the British prime minister promised in Tripoli to help hunt down Muammar Gaddafi and to hand his frozen assets to his successors.
The forces of the National Transitional Council (NTC) later said they had stormed Gaddafi's home town of Sirte, one of three main urban areas still beyond the interim government's control.
NTC fighters were facing strong resistance from loyalist fighters, especially snipers, a military spokesman said.
In Benghazi, seat of the uprising which early intervention by French and British jets helped to save from Gaddafi's army in March, Sarkozy and Cameron were treated to a rowdy welcome on "Freedom Square," shouting to be heard over a cheering crowd of hundreds -- many in the city were unaware of their arrival.
"It's great to be here in free Benghazi and in free Libya," said Cameron as he strained, rock-star hoarse, above the chants in televised scenes both men will hope play well back home.
The French president, struggling for re-election next year, beamed at grateful chants of "One, two, three; Merci Sarkozy!" while the two leaders, flanking NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil, held his arms aloft like a victorious boxer.
"France, Great Britain, Europe, will always stand by the side of the Libyan people," said Sarkozy, whom many Libyans credit with making a decisive gamble, pulling in a hesitant United States and securing U.N. backing for NATO air strikes to halt Gaddafi's tanks as they closed in to crush Benghazi.
"Your city was an inspiration to the world as you threw off a dictator and chose freedom," Cameron said, clearly enjoying the relative security to speak outdoors in Benghazi after a tight lockdown in tense Tripoli. "Colonel Gaddafi said he would hunt you down like rats but you showed the courage of lions."
Hajja, a 70-year-old swathed in the rebel tricolour, watched the two leaders with a rapture they rarely experience at home: "If we could give them anything, we would -- our lives, our souls ... But for them, we would be history."
In Tripoli, Libyan interim premier Mahmoud Jibril spoke at a news conference of "our thanks for this historic stance" taken by France and Britain to launch the West into a war that did not always look set to end well for the rebels.
Both countries offered continued military support against Gaddafi loyalists holding substantial parts of Libya as well as in hunting the former strongman and others wanted for crimes against humanity. Sarkozy said he would raise the issue with neighbouring Niger, a former French colony where some of Gaddafi's senior aides and one of his sons have sought refuge.
"This is not over," Cameron said. "There are still parts of Libya that are under Gaddafi's control. Gaddafi is still at large and we must make sure that this work is completed."
In a sign of progress for the NTC, a spokesman said its forces had entered Sirte, Gaddafi's sprawling home town between Tripoli and Benghazi. But like in other loyalist cities, Libyan fighters were met with strong resistance.
"They have now entered the city. There was a coordinated push from the south, east and west and from along the coast," NTC military spokesman Abdulrahman Busin told Reuters.
"They are coming under heavy fire. There is a particular problem with snipers."
Inland, at Bani Walid, residents were still trying to leave the besieged loyalist stronghold, and reported that others were trapped by gunmen. Deep in the desert, the southern city of Sabha is also still controlled by forces loyal to Gaddafi.
Cameron said a Franco-British move at the United Nations on Friday could mean London alone unfreezing $19 billon of assets, while help with healthcare and disarmament was also ready.
With an eye on public opinion at home, he drew attention to the case of a boy wounded by a grenade at his school who would be treated by British specialists, while Sarkozy rebuffed suggestions of self-interest in the war, declaring: "We did what we did because we thought it was just."
Although Sarkozy hotly denied talk among Arabs of "under the table deals for Libya's riches," interim Libyan leader Abdel Jalil said key allies could expect preferential treatment in return for their help in ending 42 years of Gaddafi's rule.
"As a faithful Muslim people," he told reporters in Tripoli, "we will appreciate these efforts and they will have priority within a framework of transparency."
Other states which did business with Gaddafi, notably China and Russia, have been concerned that their lukewarm attitude to the NTC may cost them economically. While Abdel Jalil stressed a desire to allocate contracts on the best terms for Libya, and to honour existing contracts, he said some could be reviewed.
Those deals signed by Gaddafi which were skewed by personal corruption could be cancelled, he said, noting that he had served as a minister under the old regime and knew its secrets.
Cameron appeared keen to avoid public triumphalism. "I'm proud of our role," he said. "But this was your revolution, not our revolution." And with an eye on events in Syria and elsewhere, he said Libyans could inspire others: "This is a moment when the Arab Spring could become a summer and we see democracy advance in other countries too."
The need for Sarkozy and Cameron to visit Benghazi as well as Tripoli is a sign of the obstacles Libya still faces in transforming itself into a peaceful, unified democracy. The NTC has not yet been able to establish a government safely in a capital still bristling with militiamen from disparate groups.
Cameron offered Jibril and Abdel Jalil a personal vote of confidence, saying they "continually proved the sceptics wrong." But the country is deeply divided. Many of its new rulers hail from Benghazi in the east, while the fighters who won the battle for Tripoli mostly come the west.
Sarkozy got a big cheer in Benghazi when he called for a "united Libya" and "a new courage, that of forgiveness."
(Reporting by Maria Golovnina near Bani Walid, Libya, William MacLean, Alexander Dziadosz, Joseph Logan and Emmanual Jarry in Tripoli, Sherine El Madany in Ras Lanuf, Emma Farge in Benghazi, Mark John and Bate Felix in Niamey, Barry Malone and Sylvia Westall in Tunis, Keith Weir and Alastair Macdonald in London, Catherine Bremer and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Rosalind Russell)