Baird 'impressed' after meeting with Libyan rebels
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says he was "very impressed" with rebel leaders he met with in Libya Monday as part of a secret visit to the North African country.
Baird spent half a day with Mahmoud Jibril, leader of the National Transitional Council (NTC), in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
He also met with humanitarian aid groups and visited Canadian troops based in Sicily who have participated in the NATO-led bombing campaign against embattled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Canada recently joined other European and Arab countries in officially recognizing the NTC as Libya's legitimate government.
"I was frankly surprised -- pleasantly" by the rebel council members, Baird said. "I was very impressed with them."
But he added: "I don't think we're going to move from Gadhafi to Thomas Jefferson." The post-Gadhafi regime, "Won't be perfect," he said.
Baird told The Canadian Press his goal for the trip was to "get the facts" for himself, adding: "We are doing our due diligence because that is what Canadians expect and the Libyan people require."
The NTC has been at a standoff for weeks with Gadhafi, Libya's longtime dictator who has vowed to fight to the death against the rebels.
Baird said he wanted to meet with Jibril and his rebel leaders to see whether they are capable of leading the country if and when Gadhafi is deposed.
"This is one of the many steps that need to happen as Canada and the NTC go forward together," Baird said.
While in Benghazi Baird met with non-governmental organizations to discuss Canada's aid efforts to Libya and how those efforts could be maximized.
He also dropped off a planeload of trauma kits to help treat the many casualties from the fighting.
Canada has committed over $10 million in aid to Libya, with funds going to various groups including the Red Cross and the United Nations Populations Fund.
Baird 'moved' by rebels' courage
During his visit, Baird travelled via motorcade through the rebel-held city, past walls covered in anti-Gadhafi graffiti.
According to Baird, rebel leaders told him of their battles against Gadhafi's forces and their retreat to Benghazi.
"I was incredibly, incredibly moved by the courage and determination," Baird said.
"It is a remarkable accomplishment."
Baird presented Jabril with a letter from Prime Minister Stephen Harper that extended an invitation to Canada to meet with federal officials and MPs. Baird also met with his counterpart on the NTC, Ali Isawi, who was forced to deny reports that the council had been negotiating a peace agreement with members of Gadhafi's regime.
"We have no direct contact with the Gadhafi regime," Isawi told reporters. "But anything that can bring to an end the bloodshed, we will certainly look at it."
Baird told reporters he will look into whether Canada can transfer frozen Libyan assets to the NTC. However, he acknowledged that such a move presents "a complex legal issue," and said he was not optimistic that he could work out such a deal.
Ottawa has also called for women to play a role in any future democratic government in Libya.
Baird tells troops to ‘be patient'
After hastily retreating to the airport around 4 p.m. local time after celebratory gunfire was heard nearby, Baird travelled to Sicily to meet with Canadian Forces personnel. Canada has seven fighter jets, in addition to a warship and surveillance and refuelling planes in the region.
In total, there are about 650 Canadian Forces personnel taking part in the NATO-led initiative. The bombing campaign began just over 100 days ago.
While the rebels have become entrenched in the east of Libya, Gadhafi and fighters loyal to him have maintained control over much of the west, including Tripoli.
Baird addressed about 60 troops, telling them in a brief speech that he is proud of their efforts.
"We've got to be patient," Baird said. "We are making progress."
Baird also signed a Canadian bomb with the words, "Free Libya. Democracy."
With files from The Canadian Press