Britain is to expel all Libyan diplomatic envoys to the UK and formally recognise the Libyan rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) as the sole legitimate government of the country, the foreign secretary has said.
William Hague made the announcement during a bullish news conference in London, saying he had been waiting to ensure Libyan students in the UK would still be funded before taking the action. He said the government would do all it could to ensure those students received their funding, unfreezing £91m of Libyan assets and currency being held in the UK.
"We consider this to be a unique situation. We are dealing with [the NTC] as if they were the State of Libya," Hague said.
He acknowledged that the African Union had so far not recognised the rebel council as the sole government of Libya, but claimed opinion within the AU had "moved a long way" in recent weeks.
He said, "The NTC has shown its commitment to a more open and democratic Libya." He added that Britain would remain on the NTC's side "for as a long as it takes". But he said that the UK could neither impose nor guarantee the removal of Colonel Gaddafi from Libya.
He rejected suggestions that there were "back channel" negotiations taking place to negotiate Gaddafi's removal from power in Tripoli. He insisted there were no deadlines set in terms of toppling the regime, but said time was "not on their side."
But Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya, said the Transitional National Council was not a government, telling the BBC: "There is already a representative of the Transitional National Council in London. He doesn't call himself an ambassador, and we don't call him one.
"But he's there, he speaks for them, he is in touch with them and communicates with them and that is not going to change.
"His problem is that the TNC is not in reality a government and doesn't claim to be a government. It has not enough authority and not enough solidarity. That is not going to change overnight but it will change gradually."
So far British aircraft have been involved in over 700 sorties against Gaddafi's forces. Britain has recently sent four more tornado jets to the area to bolster the coalition forces there. This, said Hague, was a "concrete illustration of commitment."
Hague added the "momentum" had shifted against Colonel Gaddafi: "Economic sanctions are restricting Gaddafi's ability to wage war on his own people."
The foreign secretary said the UK would stay in Libya as long as is necessary.
Stephen Twigg, Labour's Shadow Foreign Minister, welcomed the move to recognise the rebel council but said post-conflict planning was needed.
"The National Transitional Council has shown it is the body most able to represent the people of Libya and it is right it is acknowledged as such and that Gaddafi's diplomats be expelled from the UK.
"The important thing now is clarity about post-conflict planning and working urgently for a political settlement."