TRIPOLI, Libya — The leaders of Britain and France visited Libya on Thursday in a triumphal but heavily guarded tour intended to boost the country’s revolutionary leaders, whose forces were propelled to power with NATO’s help last month by routing Moammar Gadhafi and his military in the most violent conflict of the Arab Spring uprisings.
Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who convened an international meeting two weeks ago in Paris in support of the new Libyan authorities, were the first world leaders to travel to the Libyan capital in the post-Gadhafi era. They pledged to keep up the NATO bombing — which their countries supervised — until the last of the recalcitrant Gadhafi forces surrendered. They also promised to help track down the elusive Gadhafi, and to provide political and economic aid to the new leaders seeking to fill the void left by his four decades of absolute rule.
The Cameron-Sarkozy visit, which also included a stop in the eastern city of Benghazi, where both were greeted warmly by residents, came as anti-Gadhafi forces claimed they had punched holes in the loyalist defenses surrounding the Mediterranean enclave of Sirte, Gadhafi’s tribal hometown and one of the redoubts of support for him.
Jallal al-Gallal, a spokesman for the National Transitional Council, the interim government, said that a large force of fighters from the port city of Misrata had attacked Sirte from the city’s western and the southern approaches, briefly beating back a defensive line of pro-Gadhafi troops. He said the Misrata fighters were able to reach a roundabout in the west of the city before the defenders drove them back out of town. “They met fierce resistance and had to withdraw,” Gallal said. Mohammed Darrat, a spokesman for the Misrata brigade, said in a telephone interview that 11 of its fighters were killed and 25 wounded and that the brigade pulled back by nightfall.
Both sides in the Libya conflict have often overstated combat victories, and it was impossible to confirm the accounts of the Sirte fighting. But Darrat’s admission of casualties suffered by the anti-Gadhafi fighters suggested that the Sirte defenses were resilient.
Both Cameron and Sarkozy, clearly enjoying the friendly reception they were getting from grateful Libyans in Tripoli and Benghazi, heaped praise on them. “This was your revolution, not our revolution,” Cameron said to the Libyans, praising “incredibly brave” rebels for “removing the dreadful dictatorship of Gadhafi.”