Western diplomats say Arab state is bypassing international agreements, to pursue its own agenda
The tiny Arab emirate of Qatar, a leading supporter of the revolution in Libya, has been accused by western diplomats of interfering in the country’s sovereignty.
The claims come amid growing concern among Libyans in the National Transitional Council (NTC) and western officials that Qatar, which supplied arms to Libyan revolutionaries, is pursuing its own postwar agenda at the cost of wider efforts to bring political stability to the country.
Concern has been mounting over the last month that Qatar is bypassing an internationally agreed assistance strategy to Libya to throw its support behind individuals and factions contributing to the continuing political instability.
A senior diplomat said: “There is a question now about what foreign players like Qatar are doing in Libya – whether it is being helpful and respectful of Libyan sovereignty. “Qatar is not being respectful, and there is a feeling that it is riding roughshod over the issue of the country’s sovereignty.”
Another diplomatic source said: “This is an issue that has been building steam for some weeks.” All foreign powers with an interest in Libya, among which are the US, Britain and France, have had their own agendas. However, the source said: “There is a feeling that Qatar has been providing money and support to certain individuals.”
At the centre of concerns are allegations that, rather than supporting the NTC, Qatar has chosen to back favoured key figures with financial and other resources. Most prominent among these woulld be the Islamist head of Tripoli’s military council, Abdul-Aziz Belhaj.
Qatar earned substantial gratitude from many in Libya for its early support of the revolution against Muammar Gaddafi’s rule. Its air force joined a UN no-fly zone while it also helped rebels sell oil.
Qatar is also widely credited with having helped supply revolutionaries with much-needed weapons during the uprising, including modern Belgian-made FN assault rifles and Milan anti-tank rockets.
Qatar has long had a cautious but active foreign policy that typically focused on negotiation and mediation. Since the Arab spring it has taken a more aggressive regional role, most notably over Libya.
Media reports have also suggested that Qatari special forces helped train rebels in the Nafusa mountains, flying some unit commanders to Qatar for training.
Of particular concern over the last month has been how Qatar has chosen to throw its weight behind a group of Libyan individuals including Sheikh Ali Salabi, a Libyan cleric who resides in Doha and has close relations with Belhaj.
There has been the growing friction between Salabi and the NTC’s interim prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril. Salabi has appeared on television to suggest Jibril is a “tyrant in waiting”.
The latest fears over the progress towards political stability in Libya come as heavy fighting continued in and around the coastal town of Sirte, one of the last redoubts of pro-Gaddafi fighters.
Reporters with anti-Gaddafi fighters described bullet-riddled cars ferrying out terrified, ill and hungry civilians from the town as anti-Gaddafi fighters said they were planning a final attack.
Government forces, for three weeks pinned down by artillery and rocket fire on the eastern edges of Sirte, were able to advance several miles into the city on Monday, capturing the southern district of Bouhadi.
Commanders of forces loyal to the ruling NTC are now talking of a “final” huge push to take the town as, backed by Nato warplanes, they continue their bombardment of pro-Gaddafi positions inside.
Civilians driving out of the town on Tuesday looked in poorer condition than people had in previous days, Reuters journalists on the east and west of Sirte said.
Several people said that they were ill and one man showed how he now needed string to hold up his trousers because he had not had enough to eat in the last three weeks.
Ali Durgham, leaving the city with some of his relatives, told Reuters his father had been killed by a shell when he went to the mosque on Monday, and that his uncle was seriously injured.
“My father died in my arms,” he said, weeping heavily as his mother watched. “I buried him yesterday.”
Medical staff outside Sirte who had treated wounded civilians fleeing the fighting said they had been told the corridors of Ibn Sina hospital, in Sirtem, were full of patients and that treatment was being given only to pro-Gaddafi fighters or members of his tribe.
A military spokesman for the NTC told a television channel Gaddafi’s son Mutassim was hiding in the hospital.