BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Germany recognized Libya’s rebel council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people on Monday, lending heavyweight support to the leaders poised to run the country if Muammar Gaddafi falls.
The recognition, voiced by Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on a visit to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, is significant because Germany has been reluctant to be drawn into the Libyan conflict and opted out of NATO military action.
“We share the same goal — Libya without Gaddafi,” Westerwelle told a news conference in Benghazi after meeting members of the rebel National Transitional Council, seen by many as a government-in-waiting.
“The national council is the legitimate representative of the Libyan people,” Westerwelle said, to applause from Libyans who were listening to him speak.
A senior rebel official welcomed the German decision to join France, Italy, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and other states in recognizing the rebel council.
“It is a very big step and we appreciate it,” said Abdel Hafiz Gogha, the NTC’s vice chairman.
German opposition politicians, media commentators and foreign policy experts had earlier this year castigated the government for not joining NATO’s campaign in Libya, saying Germany was failing to live up to its international obligations.
“We didn’t change our mind. We think that Colonel Gaddafi has lost any (legitimacy) to speak for the people of Libya ... The fact that we do not participate in the military intervention does not mean that we are neutral,” Westerwelle told the news conference.
Fighting flared at the weekend in the town of Zawiyah, 50 km (30 miles) west of the Libyan capital — clashes the rebel leadership said were a sign that the momentum in the four-month-old conflict was shifting their way.
But on Monday, a rebel spokesman in Zawiyah who had been giving accounts of the fighting was no longer reachable by telephone. The main highway west from Tripoli, which had been closed because of the fighting, now appeared to have re-opened.
A group of foreign journalists who traveled with an official escort from Tripoli to neighboring Tunisia on Monday morning passed along the main highway, instead of taking a detour near Zawiyah as happened at the weekend.
Western governments say they believe it is only a matter of time before Gaddafi’s 41-year rule comes to an end under the weight of NATO military intervention, sanctions and defections from within his own entourage.
But Gaddafi has refused to quit, and he has proved in the past to be a wily survivor. Libyan television showed him on Sunday evening playing a game of chess with the visiting president of the international chess federation.
A rebel spokesman in the town of Zintan, in the rebel-held Western Mountains range south-west of Tripoli, said the settlement was subjected to its heaviest bombardment by pro-Gaddafi forces in several weeks on Sunday.
“There were nine martyrs from the bombardment ... yesterday. More than 40 others were wounded,” the spokesman, called Abdulrahman, told Reuters by telephone from Zintan.
“The revolutionaries captured several mercenaries and Libyan army officers. Some of them were wounded and are receiving treatment,” he said. “There was no bombardment today. It’s quiet for the moment.”
Gaddafi has said the rebels are criminals and al Qaeda militants. He has described the NATO military intervention as an act of colonial aggression aimed at grabbing Libya’s plentiful oil supplies.
On another front, about 1,000 km east of Zintan, rebels late on Sunday said they were repulsed by Gaddafi’s forces in a battle to retake the Mediterranean coast oil town of Brega, despite having NATO air support.
The rebels said they had lost at least four killed in fighting between Brega and Ajdabiyah. At least 65 fighters were wounded, doctors at the hospital in Benghazi said.
“We attacked them first but they attacked us back. We tried to get to Brega but that was difficult,” Haithan Elgwei, a rebel fighter said after returning from the front with the wounded.
Libyan state television on Monday showed pictures of what it said was Abu Bakr Jaber Younes, Gaddafi’s de facto defense minister, touring the front lines in Brega.
In Misrata, the biggest rebel strong-hold in western Libya, doctors said six rebel fighters were killed on Sunday when they tried to push forward beyond their lines into farmland between Misrata and the neighboring town of Zlitan.
Fighters hoisted the rebel flag on the outskirts of Zlitan.
“There’s a lot of activity inside,” said their commander, referring to the level of support in Zlitan for the uprising against Gaddafi.
But in deeply tribal Libya, an advance by Misrata rebels on a neighboring town could be perceived by its residents as an act of aggression, bringing the war and its inevitable destruction to their doorstep.
Rebels say they are sensitive to the risk.
“We are here to make sure Zlitan is ready to fight,” said a senior rebel, who gave his name as Mohammed.
“We want the Zlitan people to fight, so that there is no civil conflict between us.”
Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Mussab Al-Khairalla and Nick Carey in Tripoli, Matt Robinson in Misrata and Sami Aboudi in Cairo; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Andrew Heavens