ISTANBUL — The United States granted Libyan rebel leaders full diplomatic recognition as the governing authority of Libya on Friday, after five months of fighting to oust longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi.
The decision, at a meeting here of more than 30 Western and Arab nations, is the first step in giving the rebels access to Libya's frozen U.S. assets, worth more than $30 billion.
"I am announcing today that, until an interim authority is in place, the United States will recognize the TNC as the legitimate governing authority for Libya," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, referring to the rebels' Transitional National Council, prompting other ministers to break out in applause.
The U.S. announcement was accompanied by an agreement among all nations at the meeting to recognize the rebel council.
Hours later, outside the meeting hall, ministers sent from the Libyan rebel council reacted to their long-sought diplomatic status with exuberance but also a mixture of weariness and frustration.
Ali Tarhouni, the rebels' minister of finance and oil, vented that despite the international recognition they received Friday, it ultimately came with no immediate infusion of funds, desperately needed now by the cash-strapped rebels.
"All it has brought is more pledges for money," he said. "If we had as much money as we have had pledges these past few months, we would have no problems."
Beside him, the rebels' minister of finance, Mahmoud Shammam, added that, yes, the opposition needs money, but even more it needs weapons, which most Western powers have refused to supply, to be able to fight Gadhafi. And the new money in frozen assets that may come from diplomatic recognition may not be allowed to go toward weapons.
Thus far, Kuwait and Qatar have given roughly $100 million to the rebels. France renewed its previous pledge on Friday to unfreeze $250 million in assets in coming weeks for the rebels, and Italy pledged to unfreeze $100 million.
The U.S. did not pledge any specific amount, and it may not come for a little while. The money is tied up in legalities, U.S. officials explained, including U.S. and United Nations sanctions.
The Obama administration's announcement in Turkey drew immediate criticism from Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, among the most active Republicans on Libya. "This is incredibly premature," Turner said, citing worries about the loyalty of rebels to the U.S. "I don't believe the administration can even answer the question, 'Where will the money go?' "
Libyan rebel leaders in Turkey responded to that argument by pointing out they are not asking for U.S. aid but frozen assets that already belong to the Libyan people and have been seized by the U.S.