BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — Turkey's foreign minister recognized Libya's rebel leaders as the country's legitimate representatives and promised them an additional $200 million in aid during a visit Sunday.
The visit by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu marked Turkey's strongest show of support yet for the opposition forces trying to out Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Turkey, a regional power, initially balked at the idea of military action in Libya and Turkish companies were involved in Libyan construction projects worth billions of dollars before the outbreak of an anti-Gadhafi uprising in February.
The revolt has turned into a protracted, largely deadlocked armed conflict, in which the rebels control Libya's eastern third, while Gadhafi clings to power in the west, but has been unable to crush pockets of resistance there. As a NATO member, Turkey is now supporting the alliance's airstrikes against targets linked to the Gadhafi regime.
Davutoglu met with Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, chairman of the rebels' National Transitional Council, in a heavily guarded government building in the city of Benghazi, the rebel's main stronghold in eastern Libya.
Later Sunday, a rebel spokesman played down media reports quoting Abdul-Jalil as saying Gadhafi has the option to remain in Libya, provided he resigns and orders a cease-fire. Abdel-Hafiz Ghoga suggested the rebel chief was expressing a personal view, saying that the idea is "not part of any discussions on our part in negotiations."
"Let Gadhafi show us one place in Libya where he hasn't harmed, tortured or killed people and he could stay there, but this place doesn't exist," said Ghoga.
The Turkish visitor, meanwhile, said his country recognizes the rebel leaders as the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people. Several other countries, including France, Qatar and Italy, have previously recognized the rebels.
Ali al-Essawi, who serves as the rebels' foreign minister, noted that "Turkey has given us political as well as financial support and humanitarian aid."
Turkey has already granted the Libyan opposition $100 million in aid and promised an additional $200 million. Some of the money is to be used to improve the infrastructure of Benghazi and rehabilitate its airport.
Temel Kotil, chief executive officer of the Turkish Airlines, said his company would resume flights to Benghazi as soon as the security situation improves. Mahmoud Jibril, one of the rebel leaders, will pay a two-day visit to Turkey on Tuesday to discuss the promised aid in more detail.
"For us, the destiny of Libya is the same as the destiny of Turkey," said Davutoglu. "I expressed our solidarity and commitment."
Davutoglu's trip to Benghazi on Sunday is the most powerful signal that Turkey, which has vast trade interests in Libya, is throwing its weight behind the Libyan opposition despite its long-time relations with Gadhafi.
The foreign minister said he hopes the Libya crisis can be solved peacefully this month, before the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan at the beginning of August. The fighting has split Libya into a rebel-controlled east and a Gadhafi-run west.
"At the end of the day, there should be a political solution based on demands and aspirations of the Libyan people," said Davutoglu. "If there is an agreement, we will do everything for the implementation of that agreement."
Turkey has called on Gadhafi to withdraw from power and pave the way for "democracy and transparency."
On the way to the airport for his flight home, Davutoglu stopped in Benghazi's Freedom Square. He was greeted by hundreds of demonstrators, including war widows, who chanted "Gadhafi out."
A coalition including France, Britain and the United States began striking Gadhafi's forces under a United Nations resolution to protect civilians on March 19, giving the rebels air support. NATO assumed control of the air campaign over Libya on March 31. It is joined by a number of Arab allies.