PARIS — World community, meet Libya's new leaders. That was the message of an international conference in Paris on Thursday that was short on substance but full of symbolism.
Leaders and envoys from 60 nations and world bodies such as the United Nations met for talks with Libya's rebel-led National Transitional Council to map the country's future after Moammar Gadhafi's ouster. They vowed to free up billions of dollars in frozen assets and offered to help Libya rebuild, while stressing that it is the Libyan people themselves who must lead the way.
World leaders cautioned that while Gadhafi is still at large, the work of war is not yet done – and the tough slog of nation-building looms after the six-month, NATO-backed rebellion can be formally termed a revolution.
"We cannot afford a failed pariah state on Europe's borders," said British Prime Minister David Cameron, who hosted the conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "We will all lose if the Arab Spring gives way to a cynical winter of repression."
Normalcy is far from ensured. Libya is rife with water, gas, and electricity shortages. Weapons pillaged from bombed-out or raided Gadhafi military installations flow through the country and abroad – possibly to the benefit of Islamic militants in the region. Libya's crucial oil and gas infrastructure, which made it one of Africa's richest nations, has been hobbled.
"They still have a huge hill to climb," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. "But they are working with the international community to secure both chemical weapons stockpiles as well as conventional weapons. They are taking action against extremism wherever they find it."
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon urged the Security Council to decide quickly on deploying a civilian mission to stabilize Libya. Other leaders at the conference called on the Security Council to take more steps to unfreeze tens of billions of dollars in assets held by Gadhafi's regime that were squirreled away in foreign banks but blocked by a U.N. resolution against him.
Sarkozy said that some $15 billion in frozen assets were being "immediately unblocked," but he did not indicate which countries the money came from. Any such unblocking would need U.N. approval. As of Thursday morning, the U.N. had only approved the unblocking of about $6 billion from banks in the United States, Britain and France.
In a final communique, delegates also urged the U.N. to welcome the National Transitional Council "as the legitimate delegation representing the Libyan people."
For the NTC to be recognized as the government of Libya, the U.N. General Assembly's Credentials Committee must accept its credentials. The committee is expected to meet in the next few weeks.
In exchange, the world leaders pressed NTC leaders to make firm commitments to democracy and transparency. Rebel spokesman Mahmoud Shammam said that the NTC members will not run for office for four years once elections are organized, as a way to ensure completely new leadership.
"We have to make sure that we fulfill our side of the deal," Libyan rebel leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil said. "We must have security in Libya. Tolerance and forgiveness must be promoted. The state of law must be respected."
Gadhafi, who remains in hiding, has vowed never to surrender, and his loyalists continue to fight in several cities. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance's military operation will continue as long as needed to protect civilians.
Libyans at Thursday's meeting expressed concern about the possible use of chemical weapons by Gadhafi supporters, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said. Western government weapons experts, however, believe that loyalist forces no longer have the hardware to deploy the weapons, after repeated NATO-led airstrikes on military targets.
Clinton told Libyan opposition leaders that they must deal with the case of Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the only person convicted in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. The ailing al-Megrahi was released from prison in Scotland in 2009 on compassionate grounds, then returned to a hero's welcome in Libya.
Al-Megrahi, an ardent Gadhafi supporter, is now reported to be near death at his home in Tripoli.
"He should be behind bars," Clinton said.
Clinton told Jalil and the head of the rebels' acting Cabinet, Mahmoud Jibril, that they would have to "grapple" with the al-Megrahi matter and look for a "just and appropriate response" to American concerns, said U.S. officials who spoke about the private meeting on condition of anonymity.
The State Department said Clinton would not link Libyan cooperation on the issue to U.S. cooperation in unfreezing Libyan assets.
Several countries stepped forward to help Libya stabilize and rebuild.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who kept her country out of the NATO mission – offered "our experience of a dictator in Germany and how to overcome the past peacefully." She also offered help rebuilding hospitals and transport and a robust police force.
Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi pledged Carabinieri paramilitary police to help Libya, its former colony, train police officers and secure borders. Norway's prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, said the oil-rich Nordic country had offered expertise in the oil and gas sector, to help ensure the country's oil wealth is distributed and taxed fairly.
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.
China, a big investor in Libya, agreed at the last minute to send an envoy. Algeria, harboring Gadhafi's wife and three of his children, did, too. But neither moved to recognize the rebels.
Thursday's talks weren'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 to gain global support. Many countries are claiming credit for Gadhafi's ouster – and jockeying to reclaim Libya's oil.
Thursday's meeting formally put an end to the Contact Group on Libya, and transformed it into a "Friends of Libya" group that will hold its next meeting in New York later this month.
Jim Heintz in Moscow, Slobodan Lekic in Brussels, Scott McDonald in Beijing, Bjoern H. Amland in Oslo, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Greg Keller and Matthew Lee in Paris contributed to this report.