POLITICS
08/30/2011 02:44 EDT | Updated 10/30/2011 05:12 EDT

Canada heads into Libya talks to listen, but stands ready to help

OTTAWA - Canada is heading into high-level talks on Libya this week without formal offers of assistance for the country as it rebuilds after a bloody uprising.

The intent of the meeting in Paris is to determine what the rebels' National Transitional Council needs, the prime minister's chief spokesman said in a briefing Tuesday.

Canada can contribute in several ways but the international community first needs to co-ordinate assistance, Dimitri Soudas said.

"Before you just start putting things into force and implementing them, you actually have to make sure everyone is going the same direction," he said.

Soudas said Thursday's meeting is also not a victory lap for NATO forces, even as military officials say their sustained campaign is seeing life slowly return to normal in many areas of the North African country.

"The definition of victory is always something that people try to establish," he said. "Victory to a large extent is democracy in Libya."

How to help fund Libya's reconstruction will be a central theme for discussion, with measures to free as much as $110 billion in assets seized from the ousted Gadhafi regime seen as key.

The UN Security Council released $1.5 billion last week following a dispute between the United States and South Africa, which had feared the release of the assets from U.S. banks would amount to international recognition of the rebels.

On Monday, the U.S. State Department said Libya's rebel leaders should look to retrieve the frozen assets and revive the country's oil industry to finance its reconstruction rather than rely on aid from abroad.

Officials also want to ensure that any unfrozen assets will be used for humanitarian goals.

Libya doesn't need international financial support to rebuild, said Gordon Smith, a former Canadian ambassador to NATO.

The country has the ninth-largest oil reserves in the world and revenues from the oil sector have given the country one of the highest per capita GDPs in Africa.

"I think some technological expertise is going to be needed, to get the gas and oil all up back online, but I think the Libyans themselves are going to have to sort out how they are going to be governed," he said.

"And I don't think that we should have any illusion (in the international community) they want to borrow lock, stock and barrel ideas coming from North American or European countries."

But Canada can provide badly needed assistance in rebuilding civil society, whether it's municipal services or advice on drafting a constitution, said NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar.

"It's ready-aye-ready when it's providing military support, but when it comes to supporting the building of a democracy and the support for basic services, it seems at this point the government seems to be mute and I think we should be offering something," he said.

"Maybe it will be something else that will be asked, but at least we should be offering."

The Paris meeting comes as Libyan rebels pledged to launch an assault within days on Gadhafi's hometown, the ousted strongman's last major bastion of support.

The rebels and NATO said that Gadhafi loyalists were negotiating the fate of Sirte, a heavily militarized city some 400 kilometres east of the capital, Tripoli.

Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the rebels' National Transitional Council, said that negotiations with forces in Sirte would end Saturday after the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, when the rebels would "act decisively and militarily."

Col. Roland Lavoie, a NATO spokesman, said it's possible Sirte might surrender without a fight.

"We have seen dialogues in several villages that were freed — I'm not saying with no hostilities, but with minimal hostilities," he said during a briefing.

Lavoie said NATO would continue supporting the rebels as long as civilians in the country are under threat, although the area around the capital, Tripoli, is now "essentially free."

Ali Tarhouni, a minister in the National Transitional Council, said Tuesday "we have a good idea where (Gadhafi) is. We don't have any doubt that we will catch him."

He gave no further details.

A senior Canadian government official, speaking on background, cautioned against reading too much into those claims, noting that over his 40-year dictatorship, Gadhafi became skilled at hiding.

"His capture would obviously be an important line marking a real separation in Libya from not democratic to the new future," the official said. "But really the importance is the rebuilding."

Canada's military involvement in the UN-sanctioned mission is set to expire on Sept. 27 and Soudas said it is premature to discuss whether it will need to be extended.

But Smith said it's unlikely that military support will be needed for more than a few more weeks, especially if the rebels are successful in rooting out the remaining Gadhafi strongholds.

The cost of Canada's military contribution is estimated to be at least $60 million.

The Canadian Forces are contributing 650 personnel along with CF-18 fighter jets, aerial tankers, a warship and surveillance planes. So far, Canada has dropped 550 bombs on the country and the jets have flown over 1,000 sorties, according to statistics provided Tuesday.

Before heading into the meetings, Harper will pay a visit to the NATO airbase in Italy.

Canada has also contributed $10.6 million in humanitarian assistance.

— with files from The Associated Press