LONDON // Britain has officially recognised Libya's main opposition group as the country's legitimate government, and expelled all diplomats from Col Muammar Qaddafi's regime yesterday.
Britain is unfreezing £91 million (Dh547m) of Libyan oil assets to help the National Transitional Council, which the UK now recognises as "the sole governmental authority in Libya," said the foreign secretary, William Hague.
The council had been invited to send an ambassador to London, Mr Hague said, adding that "we will deal with the National Transitional Council on the same basis as other governments around the world."
The Libyan charge d'affaires was summoned yesterday morning and informed that he must leave the country within three days, the Foreign Office said. A government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with official policies, said the seven other remaining diplomats were being given more time in case they wanted to defect.
Britain's diplomatic moves implement a decision made at a July 15 meeting in Istanbul during which the US, Britain and 30 other nations recognised Libya's main opposition group as the country's legitimate government
A popular uprising seeking to oust Colonel Qaddafi broke out in February, but the front lines in the civil war have remained largely stagnant since then. Rebels, backed by Nato air bombings, control much of the country's east and pockets in the west. But Colonel Qaddafi controls the rest from his stronghold in Tripoli, the capital.
Britain is one of the leading participants in the Nato-led campaign, but the government has been under pressure over its failure to remove Colonel Qaddafi from power.
Libya's rebels saluted Britain's decision. Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the head of the rebels' council, said Britain's recognition "gives us a political and economic boost."
"We will try through this recognition to get our frozen assets," Mr Abdul Jalil told a news conference in the rebel capital of Benghazi in eastern Libya. "This means Qaddafi and his followers are no longer legitimate."
This week, Mr Hague said for the first time that Colonel Qaddafi might be able to remain in Libya as long as he is not in power. He said that "Qaddafi is going to have to abandon power, all military and civil responsibility," but "what happens to Qaddafi is ultimately a question for the Libyans."
France and the United States have made similar suggestions.
Mr Hague denied there was a stalemate in Libya. "We will see this through to success, however long it takes," he said. "Time is not on the side of the Qaddafi regime."
A handful of demonstrators gathered outside the embassy in London, with a rebel banner, heckling the diplomats inside and threatening to climb onto the balcony and tear down Qaddafi's green flag. They were dispersed by police, who stood guard outside the four-story building across from Hyde Park.
Abdelatif Kleisa, a Libyan émigré now living in Sheffield, was among the demonstrators. He said any defections would be welcome, but that the defectors themselves wouldn't be treated as heroes.
"It's too late for them to defect," said Mr Kleisa, 48, a businessman, who wore a rebel flag badge over his heart. Asked if any of the diplomats could win a place in the rebel movement, he let out an expletive.
"No way," he said. "They have to get normal jobs like anyone else. We struggled for 42 years. Now it's their turn to struggle."