TRIPOLI, Libya — The U.S. ambassador to Libya expressed confidence in the country's new rulers Thursday as the American Embassy reopened in the capital months after it closed down during the fighting to oust Moammar Gadhafi.
Ambassador Gene Cretz acknowledged the North African nation faces many challenges as Gadhafi remains on the run and fighting with his loyalists continues on three fronts.
"The next few months will be critical as Libyans lay the groundwork for a pluralistic democracy that respects the rights of all of its citizens," he said in remarks before the flag was raised in front of his residence in Tripoli, which will serve as the interim embassy. "The United States and the international community are ready to help in any way we can."
The ceremony occurred on the same day that Tunisian authorities jailed Libya's ex-prime minister, Al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, on charges of illegal entry after he was found without a visa as he was trying to flee across the border to Algeria. Libya's transitional government said it would ask Tunisia to send al-Mahmoudi home to face justice.
Cretz said Gadhafi and his supporters would eventually be routed, but the National Transitional Council would not wait to move forward with efforts to form a new government.
"It's a question of time before Gadhafi and his remaining loyalists are finished off," he said.
The American Embassy's main compound was attacked and severely damaged by a pro-Gadhafi mob after an airstrike in May. Embassy staff had already been evacuated as unrest spread after the start of the uprising in mid-February.
For Cretz, it was a personal victory to be back in Libya.
The Albany, New York native had left the country for consultations in Washington in January after WikiLeaks posted his opinions of Gadhafi's personal life and habits, such as his love of flamenco dancing and his reliance on a Ukrainian nurse, in a classified 2009 diplomatic cable.
The ambassador, who returned to the country on Wednesday, said he had been physically threatened because of outrage over the document.
"At that time, I could not imagine that I would be returning to a new, free Libya that is brimming with joy, optimism and newfound freedoms," he said.
Despite the optimism, he expressed concern about the influence of Islamists in the country but said that so far, they had expressed a moderate platform.
Cretz also said the Americans were worried about the proliferation of weapons that were missing from Gadhafi's once vast arsenal. In particular, the U.S. has sought to keep track of Libya's unconventional weapons experts during the civil war.
Gadhafi agreed to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction research and production programs as part of efforts to normalize relations with the international community as he faced intense economic pressure from international sanctions. But he never completed the process.
A U.N. official said Libyans had found uranium yellowcake, partly refined uranium ore, that was left over from the former regime's nuclear program, in a southern area. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information, said the material was "slightly radioactive" but posed no immediate danger. He didn't know how much had been found.
The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that yellowcake is stored in drums at a site near Sabha, which had been disclosed to the nuclear watchdog. The IAEA has tentatively scheduled safeguard activities at this location once the situation in the country stabilizes, according to spokeswoman Gill Tudor.
Also Thursday, fighters from Misrata said in a statement that they are in control of chemical weapons near Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte – one of the three areas where loyalists continue to put up stiff resistance. They said they are safeguarding any possible chemical weapons until the arrival of a U.N. team, which will oversee their transfer.
"We are looking for a peaceful country and we don't want these kinds of weapons to stay in it," the statement said.
Libya's new rulers are struggling to consolidate their control over the entire country a month after revolutionary forces seized control of the capital, Tripoli, and brought down Gadhafi's regime. There is concern that as long as Gadhafi and other top regime figures are not captured, they could cause significant instability.
Al-Mahmoudi was arrested overnight when he and two other people were found without visas in the southern Tunisia town of Tameghza as they were trying to flee into Algeria, authorities said.
The three were questioned by the state prosecutor and sentenced in court to six months in prison for illegal entry, according to Tunisia's Justice Ministry spokesman Kadhem Zine El Abidine.
Al-Mahmoudi is not among the former Gadhafi allies being sought by the International Criminal Court, but the Libyans said he was wanted for financial corruption and other crimes.
The transitional government planned to ask Tunisia to send al-Mahmoudi back to Libya to face justice, spokesman Jalal el-Gallal said. He declined to outline specific allegations against the former prime minister. "When we have him here in Libya, we will file the charges and he will be tried," el-Gallal said.
The Canadian general commanding NATO's mission in Libya said that isolated groups of Gadhafi supporters continue to be a threat to local people.
Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard said in a conference call with reporters that many Gadhafi forces are surrounded with no way out and lack the capacity to coordinate actions. On Wednesday, NATO's decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, granted approval to extend the mission for another 90 days. Without an extension, permission for the operation would have expired Sept. 27.
Government forces this week have made inroads against Gadhafi loyalists in southern strongholds, including Sabha, the last major city in Libya's far south on a key road leading to the border with Niger. Several convoys of Gadhafi loyalists and forces, as well as one of his sons. have escaped into Niger.
"Well, I don't think there are too many places left in Libya for regime forces to go," Bouchard said. "What we are now witnessing is tactical, very localized action."
Associated Press writers Bouazza Ben Bouazza in Tunis, Tunisia, and George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.