PARIS (AP) — World leaders and top international envoys started talks Thursday with Libya's rebel government about how to keep the country together and build a new democracy, after months of civil war and decades of dictatorship under Moammar Gadhafi.
The summit in Paris is looking to free up billions in frozen Libyan assets worldwide to help the newly dominant opposition, and to reconcile diplomatic differences over the NATO-led airstrike campaign that helped oust Gadhafi.
Russia, which had criticized the NATO operation, gave a boost to the meeting by recognizing the rebels as Libya's interim leadership hours before the talks started.
Some 60 heads of state and leading figures including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the chiefs of the United Nations, NATO and the Arab League are taking part.
Thursday's talks aren't expected to dramatically change the game in Libya, at least not in the short term. They're largely an opportunity for the Libyans to make their case for rebuilding their nation and for the international community to work out its own differences over what should happen next. Many countries are claiming credit for Gadhafi's ouster — and jockeying to re-claim Libya's oil.
Whatever happens Thursday, French officials have admitted that Libya's transition may fail. Numerous international conferences were held over the past decade on rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan in which grand promises often failed to deliver much security.
The meeting is the first international gathering for the rebel-backed National Transitional Council now that it has taken Tripoli and controls most of Libya, and a test of its readiness to run a troubled and divided country.
The council is expected to present a detailed list of requests at the conference, which comes 42 years to the day after Gadhafi seized power in a coup. It may seek short-term loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, U.S. officials said. While they do not want international peacekeepers, the rebels may seek a civilian U.N. police presence, they said.
While the United States and many European countries abandoned Gadhafi and recognized the rebels months ago, Russia was among those sharply critical of NATO's military campaign in Libya.
A short statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday said it recognized the National Transitional Council. Pressure will now fall on other countries to follow suit — especially China and Algeria.
China, a big investor in Libya, agreed at the last minute to send an envoy to the Paris conference, and stressed that the United Nations should take a leading role in Libya's future.
Asked about recognizing the rebels, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said only that China respects the choice of the Libyan people and attaches importance to the "role played by the National Transitional Council in the settlement of the Libyan issue."
Algeria offered safe haven to Gadhafi's wife and three of his children on Monday, drawing ire from the Libyan rebels. Algerian newspaper El Watan reported, citing unidentified officials in President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's office, said Gadhafi himself also sought refuge across the border but the Bouteflika refused to take his phone calls.
One country notably absent from the meeting is South Africa, which has had ties over the years to Gadhafi and has been critical of the way NATO and key Western powers have handled the Libya situation.
In a state visit to Norway on Thursday, South African President Jacob Zuma said the African Union was undermined in talks over Libya, and criticized Western countries' use of military force that helped the rebels.
Instead of aid for Libya, the financial focus at Thursday's conference will be on unfreezing assets linked to Gadhafi in banks worldwide. The money was blocked by a U.N. resolution earlier this year aimed at persuading Gadhafi to stop his violent crackdown on anti-government protests.
French officials say at least $50 billion linked to Gadhafi is believed to be squirreled away across the world. British officials have put the figure as high as $110 billion. France has received authorization to transfer euro1.5 billion, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Thursday.
Clinton hopes to announce in Paris that $1.5 billion in Gadhafi regime assets frozen in the United States have been distributed on behalf of the rebels, U.S. officials said. That money is about half the liquid assets of the more than $30 billion in frozen Libyan assets in the United States. Clinton also held bilateral meetings with Libyan rebel leaders ahead of the broader talks.
Summit hosts French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, two of the most vocal backers of the rebels, are eager for the Libyans themselves to be seen as taking the lead, instead of outside powers. Many are trying to learn lessons from the insurgent violence that wracked Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
The transition process "is Libyan-led, this is Libyan-owned, this is not Iraq," British Foreign Minister William Hague said on BBC Radio Thursday.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told reporters in Brussels that the European bloc foresees four areas in which it could help Libya move toward to democracy: immediate humanitarian aid and supplies; security sector reform; economic support — including the lifting of sanctions; and help in building civil society and democracy.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany would make a "recognizable contribution" to helping Libya once officials there have said what they need.
"Libya won't have the problem that there isn't enough money — Libya does have financial capacities," she told reporters in Berlin. "But I think a lot will be needed very quickly now in terms of technical help, and then also in terms of building up democratic structures, and Germany is prepared to help here too."
British officials have stressed that Libya's interim government must use Thursday's summit to offer assurances over the timetable toward elections. But Hague indicated there could be flexibility over the National Transitional Council's commitment to hold elections within eight months.
Council leaders Mustafa Abdul-Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril are among 31 heads of state and government and 11 foreign ministers at the conference, along with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and leaders of NATO, the European Union, African Union, the Arab League, and the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Jim Heintz in Moscow, Slobodan Lekic in Brussels, Scott McDonald in Beijing, Bjoern H. Amland in Oslo, and Greg Keller and Matthew Lee in Paris contributed to this report.