THE CANADIAN PRESS -- BENGHAZI, - Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird 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.
Baird said the group preparing to take power once the country's dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, is ousted has a strong dedication to democracy, but he added no one should expect that transition to take place overnight.
"Our vision is a strong, prosperous Libya, living in freedom and living peacefully with its neighbours," Baird said after meeting with anti-Gadhafi rebels and delivering trauma kits to help their cause.
"I was frankly surprised — pleasantly" at the capabilities of the rebel council members, he 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, he cautioned, "won't be perfect."
It's Baird's first big trip as foreign minister, aside from a jaunt to the G8 summit in France last month, and it came as a stalemate between Libyan dissident groups and Gadhafi forces prompted questions about whether the NATO-led bombing campaign in Libya is working.
"It was important to me to come here and get the facts for myself," Baird told The Canadian Press.
"We are doing our due diligence because that is what Canadians expect and the Libyan people require."
Canada recently joined European and Arab countries in recognizing the National Transitional Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people.
Baird's dramatic journey began at 9 a.m. local time when he boarded a 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.
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 leader, Mahmoud Jibril, followed by a meeting with council board members.
"I was incredibly, incredibly moved by the courage and determination," Baird said of rebels who gave him their firsthand accounts of battles with Gadhafi forces and subsequent escape to the safe haven of Benghazi.
"It is a remarkable accomplishment," said the minister.
The group is setting itself up as an alternative to Gadhafi. But some of Canada's allies fear the council's military strength and political know-how are too thin to do the job.
Behind closed doors, Baird presented Jibril 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 Isawi, who denied reports that council members had discussed a peace deal with Gadhafi representatives.
"We have no direct contact with the Gadhafi regime," Isawi told reporters afterward. "But anything that can bring to an end the bloodshed, we will certainly look at it."
Outside the meeting room, 12-year-old Retaj, who was wearing a traditional long burgundy gown adorned with silver, spoke about seeing her neighbours shot in battle.
She still had an enormous smile for the Canadian visitors and did not hide her enthusiasm for her people's revolution, nor her delight at receiving foreign recognition.
"We will win. Soon, " she predicted in an interview.
Indeed, time is of the essence. Some of the global partners in the bombing campaign are getting cold feet. And none of the partners wants the conflict to drag on.
"Time is not on our side," said young council member Taha El Hassadi, a telecommunications specialist.
"We thought we could get Tripoli in just a couple of weeks."
Speaking to reporters in Rome after his trip, Baird flatly rejected the notion that the pro- and anti-Gadhafi forces are locked in a stalemate.
Baird noted that two more Gadhafi cabinet ministers defected Monday to neighbouring Tunisia.
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.
In Benghazi, Baird's main aim was to get a firm grip on how well-prepared the dissidents are to actually govern the country one day — if Gadhafi is deposed.
"This is one of the many steps that need to happen as Canada and the NTC go forward together," Baird said.
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.
The minister told about 60 troops gathered for a brief speech that he was proud of their work and assured them Canada is fully committed to helping Libya.
"We've got to be patient," he told them. "We are making progress."
Canada has seven fighter-bombers taking part in the NATO-led 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."
The bombardment has just passed its 100-day mark, with the rebels controlling eastern Libya and Gadhafi controlling the west, including the capital, Tripoli.
While some NATO leaders say they have the upper hand, Italy is now asking for a standstill to allow access for humanitarian aid. The call came just days after a NATO bomb killed innocent civilians.
Some NATO partners are eyeing the drawn-out intervention in Iraq and wondering aloud whether the Libyan rebel group has a credible plan to pick up the pieces if and when Gadhafi is defeated.
The dissenters are a disparate group, and the council controls just a fifth of the fighters. Plus, the country has no recent democratic history.
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."