Baird 'surprised - pleasantly' by Libyan rebels
The Canadian Press
Published Monday, June 27, 2011 7:55PM EDT
BENGHAZI - Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is urging patience for those anxious to see democracy come to Libya.
But that's a hard message to deliver to countries weary of spending deficit dollars on intractable Middle Eastern conflicts, and an equally tough pill to swallow for the rebels who have put their livelihoods and their lives on the line.
"Time is not on our side. It's not good for us. We have to control (the situation) and we have to finish it," said Taha El Hassadi, a young dissident who has put his IT job in Seattle on hold while he fights for freedom and democracy in his homeland.
"This is a disaster," he said in an interview at the National Transitional Council headquarters, where the council is planning to form a government-in-waiting to take over if and when Moammar Gadhafi is ever deposed.
"How many people have died, and people have lost their homes, and are living in tents in the middle of nowhere?"
Time after time, Baird heard national council members tell their personal stories of sacrifice, pain and loss as they decided to rebel against the Gadhafi regime.
He arrived in the rebel-held city of Benghazi on the 101st day of bombing by NATO countries who are trying to drive Gadhafi out of power after 42 years of brutal rule.
Baird said he was politically surprised and personally moved by his first-hand look at Libya's rebel council members after taking a secret trip to meet them Monday.
"I was struck by their courage, their determination. They've put themselves and their families at risk in this battle for freedom. It's quite impressive," he said in an interview.
He said they have a strong dedication to democracy, but he warned that no one should expect that transition to take place overnight.
"Obviously this thing can't end too soon -- the killing and the disruption of daily life. I think they're just as keen and as enthusiastic to get this behind them and begin to establish freedom and democracy here in Libya," he said.
But since NATO is only conducting a bombing campaign and does not have troops on the ground, progress is slow, Baird said.
"I think we have to be patient...We've just got to have patience and determination."
That's not what 12-year-old Retaj wants to hear. The youngster was on hand to greet the minister with a fetching smile and a traditional long burgundy gown adorned with silver.
But while the minister spoke behind close doors to the NTC about patience, Retaj spoke to a reporter about seeing her neighbours shot in battle and having her schooling disrupted.
She insisted: "We will win. Soon."
Gadhafi is digging in his heels to face off against a group of rebels with no experience with democracy and patchy support across the country they want to lead -- prompting questions about whether the battle to oust him is winnable any time soon.
But Baird rejects the notion of a stalemate, noting that two more prominent Gadhafi cabinet ministers defected to Tunisia on Monday.
Canada and many other countries have recognized the NTC as the legitimate voice of the Libyan people -- a bold move for Canada, which normally recognizes states, not governments.
Baird said recognizing the NTC does not mean Canada expects a transition to democracy to be clean.
"I don't think we're going to move from Gadhafi to Thomas Jefferson." The post-Gadhafi regime, he cautioned, "won't be perfect."
The dramatic trip to Libya was just Baird's second foray as foreign minister, after a quick jaunt to the G8 summit in France last month.
His journey began at 9 a.m. local time when he boarded a cavernous military transport aircraft in Rome along with security, ministerial staff and the Canadian ambassador to Libya, Sandra McCardell.
He spent some of his air time up front in the cockpit, giving him a clear view of the length of Italy and the expansive Mediterranean Sea -- a vista that NATO bomber pilots, including Canada's, have witnessed on thousands of bombing missions since March.
The aircraft landed about two hours later in Benghazi, well away from the front lines and now considered safe from the forces of long-time dictator Gadhafi. Indeed, Ottawa is now considering placing an envoy in the city like some other countries have done, Baird said.
Met by council officials, Baird spent half a day in the rebel-held city, travelling by motorcade past walls plastered with anti-Gadhafi graffiti. He met for 30 minutes with the coalition president, Abdul Jalil, followed by a meeting with council board members.
Baird presented Jalil with a letter from Prime Minister Stephen Harper inviting him to Canada to meet with officials and parliamentarians. He later met with his council counterpart, Ali Issawi, who denied reports that council members had discussed a peace deal with Gadhafi representatives.
"We have no direct contact with the Gadhafi regime," Issawi told reporters afterward. "But anything that can bring to an end the bloodshed, we will certainly look at it."
Baird said Canada will look at whether it can free any frozen Libyan assets for the council, but he noted that there are two chunks of assets -- one frozen by the United Nations that can't be touched without its approval; the other by Canada, which might be redirected.
"It's a complex legal issue," Baird said. "I'm not going to say I'm optimistic."
Baird's trip came as the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Gadhafi.
The court says Gadhafi, his son and his intelligence chief are wanted for orchestrating the killing, injuring, arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of civilians during the first 12 days of the uprising in Libya, and for trying to cover up the alleged crimes.
Baird said he was impressed with the council's ambitious post-Gadhafi road map that calls for nothing short of a constitution, elections and a full-scale leap towards democracy in less than a year.
"I saw a commitment and a passion that you can only see when you're sitting across a table," Baird later told reporters from Rome.
The minister said he is not troubled by the fact the council is made up ex-members of Gadhafi's regime.
"This regime has been in power since I was born," said Baird, who turned 42 last month.
"There will be major challenges. They've laid out a vision. Canada wants to support them as they go forward," he added. "They're the only game in town."
His trip was kept secret until he left Libya so that his safety would not be threatened.
In Benghazi, Baird lunched on spicy seafood and met with non-governmental groups to see how Canada's humanitarian aid to Libya could be made most efficient. Ottawa has been pushing for women to be included in democracy-building efforts in a post-Gadhafi Libya.
The delegation beat a hasty retreat to the airport after officials reported the sounds of what was believed to celebratory gunfire. They passed children waving large flags and adults flashing peace signs. The Canadian plane took off about 4 p.m.
After Benghazi, the minister travelled on to visit Canadian military stationed in Sicily. The group is spearheading Canada's participation in the NATO-led bombing campaign of Libya.
Canada has seven fighter-bombers taking part in the campaign, along with a warship, surveillance aircraft and aerial-refuelling planes. There are about 650 uniformed personnel deployed.
In keeping with a long-held air force tradition, Baird signed a Canadian bomb destined for Gadhafi's infrastructure with the message: "Free Libya. Democracy."
Someone else had already written another message on the same bomb: "This postal service don't strike."
Baird said he'd like to return to Libya, but he said next time he wants to go to the capital, Tripoli, to "witness the expansion of freedom."