Western powers head into pivotal Libya crisis talks Friday divided over a British-French push for formal recognition of Moamer Kadhafi's opponents and a Paris plea for limited airstrikes.
Capping 48 hours of talks on Libya involving NATO defence ministers and European Union foreign ministers, heads of state and government of the 27-nation bloc head to Brussels for an emergency summit aimed at delivering a joint response on events in the oil-rich country.
"Colonel Kadhafi must relinquish power immediately," the EU leaders will say at the talks, according to a draft of summit conclusions obtained by AFP.
They will also opt for "continued planning with NATO Allies" to prepare for all contingencies, including a no-fly zone, the document says.
|Libyan rebel fighters fire towards approaching Kadhafi regime tanks at the key Libyan oil town of Ras Lanuf.|
Britain and France have a draft resolution in hand to put to the United Nations Security Council for an air exclusion zone over the oil-rich country. But the council remains split on the issue and even allies Germany and Italy have sounded words of warning.
"We do not want to get sucked into a war in North Africa," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Thursday.
"We want to have freedom. We want to support peace," he said. But decisions had to be taken wisely and with care, he added.
At the two-day NATO defence ministers' talks that began Thursday, the alliance agreed to send more ships towards Libya's coast. But it delayed any decision on imposing a no-fly zone, saying a clear UN approval for military action was needed first.
"There is no rush to move forward without the UN," the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told a group of reporters as the bloc tightened the screws on Kadhafi with a batch of new sanctions targeting key Tripoli firms.
On military as well as on political options towards Libya and the Arab world at large, Europe needed to move in concert with the region, notably the Arab League which meets in Cairo this weekend.
"We have to work closely with the region in our approach," said Ashton who will be flying to Cairo on Sunday to debrief Arab League leader Amr Mussa.
"The Arab world has to lead."
The EU's top diplomat had no criticism of France's surprise decision to recognise Libya's opposition as the country's rightful representative. Recognition of governments was "a question for member states", she said.
But President Nicolas Sarkozy's sudden move, along with his call for aerial action, cast a pall over talks between the bloc's foreign ministers Thursday.
"Recognition should be a European, not a national, decision," said Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.
Berlin too objected, with Chancellor Angela Merkel not only taken aback at France's recognition of Libya's opposition but also warning against "use of military means".
"Merkel is surprised that France has recognised the national council," said a statement issued by the German lower house of parliament. She had also underlined the "scepticism of the German government over the use of military means in Libya," it added.
France and Britain nevertheless piled more pressure on their partners in a joint letter to EU president Herman Van Rompuy later, urging the union to consider the country's rebel national council a valid political interlocutor.
"We support the efforts of the Libyan Interim Transitional National Council to prepare for a representative and accountable government," Cameron and Sarkozy said.
"We should send the clear political signal that we consider the Council to be valid political interlocutors."
In areas where consensus is more likely, European leaders will also address a looming humanitarian crisis and sign up to a policy U-turn towards the southern Mediterranean that signals the end of an era of dubious diplomacy.
Slammed for propping up despots and turning a blind eye to rights abuses, Europe's leaders have pledged a "top to toe" revamp of aid and trade deals with countries on its southern flank.
"Europe bowed before these dictators, it paid no heed to repression," said Alain Deletroz, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.
"Europe is bidding to open a new chapter carrying a heavy burden from the past."