06/17/2011 11:07 EDT | Updated 08/17/2011 05:12 EDT

John Baird To Meet Libya Rebels In Benghazi


THE CANADIAN PRESS -- OTTAWA - Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird says he's planning a trip to eastern Libya so he can see first-hand how the country's rebels are doing.

Baird says he will go to Benghazi, the base for the National Transitional Council. Baird said he hasn't got a firm date in mind, but that he would like to make the journey soon.

Canada followed a number of European and Arab states earlier this week by recognizing the council as the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people.

"What we committed to in the debate, what we brought forward in our motion, was greater diplomatic engagement, and we're very serious about that," Baird said today.

Baird was referring to Parliament's near-unanimous vote this week to extend Canada's military participation in the NATO-led air campaign over Libya to the end of September.

Baird met Thursday with the council's Canadian liaison, Ottawa businessman Sufyan Maghur. The minister called the meeting a good first step, but he wants to hear more from the council's more senior members.

"He seemed to have a connection directly to Benghazi. He also deals regularly with the UN ambassador in Washington, who is probably more of an ambassador for the council than he is for the Gadhafi government."

Libya's UN ambassador was among the most high-profile defectors from the Gadhafi regime, which has been under a sustained NATO-led bombardment for three months.

Once Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is no longer in power, the council will need more help to build a country that respects human rights and democracy, Baird said.

In his meeting with Maghur, Baird he also stressed Canada's desire for women to be included in democracy-building efforts in a post-Gadhafi Libya.

He highlighted Canada's concerns about rape being used as an instrument of war. Canada added another $2 million to its humanitarian aid to Libya this week, and earmarked a major portion of that new spending to helping deal with the rape issue.

Baird said Maghur thanked him for Canada's recent decision to expel five Libyan diplomats from Ottawa. Maghur told the minister that he also has a house in Tripoli and that it was ransacked after he became active in the Libyan diaspora in recent months.

"He reported to us that since the department's decision to expel five Libyan diplomats that the amount of intimidation, coercion or threats have subsided," Baird said.

Canada has seven fighter jets taking part in the NATO-led bombardment, along with a warship, surveillance planes and aerial refuellers — some 650 military personnel in all.

The Canadian Forces confirmed for the first time this week that its CF-18s took part in four days of attacks on Tripoli.

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

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