Gazing down from a huge billboard outside the Libyan rebel headquarters in Benghazi, the image of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, surveys the square.
Below him are the words: “Qatar, history will always remember your support for our cause.” The emirate was pivotal in securing Arab support for the Nato campaign to oust Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and its importance is growing as the war drags on.
The Times has learnt that Britain and France are using Qatar to bankroll the Libyan rebels, with Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron under increasing pressure to break the deadlock and bring down the regime. Nato airstrikes have so far failed to dislodge the Libyan leader while the rebels lack the firepower and military discipline to take advantage on the ground.
Mindful of the rising cost of the campaign but fearful of breaching their UN mandate by arming the rebels, Britain and France are relying on Doha in a bid to tip the balance, according to a senior western diplomat.
“We need to reinforce military pressure. It has to bite on the ground. The Qataris are doing what needs to be done,” he said.
According to the diplomat, Mr Cameron and President Sarkozy discussed how to help the rebels on the ground last Friday. A security source in the Gulf also told The Times that British and French officials discussed selling arms to Qatar with a view to Doha passing them on to Benghazi.
“The issue was not whether to do it but how much [to send],” he said. “The Qataris are buying a lot of hardware from France and supplying the Libyans on the ground through Doha. France has denied it is engaged in such actions but we have good information that it is happening.”
Colonel Salah Badi, the commander of rebel forces in Misrata, said that British officials rejected their request for arms. He complained that the officials had acknowledged that rebel leaders were correct in claiming that Colonel Gaddafi was breaking the arms embargo with weapons supplied secretly across the Algerian border.
In a statement yesterday, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry said: “None of all that is true. We are acting strictly within the framework of United Nations resolutions 1970 and 1973 and we are not supplying weapons to the Libyan insurgents.”
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “We are committed to fully implementing both UNSCR 1970 and 1973. We are not supplying arms to the National Transitional Council and we have no plans to do so.”
Qatar has so far declined to comment on what products it has delivered to Libya, but western and rebel sources say it is supplying the rebels with money, fuel and now arms. These are believed to include French-made anti-tank missiles.
Though its support is less publicised than that of Benghazi’s western allies, Qatar’s investment in the three-month-old revolution has been huge, and indicative of the major role that the affluent Gulf monarchy is taking in the region’s political affairs.
“Qatar is our biggest Arab donor,” said Othman Mohammed Rishi, of the revolution’s Ministry of Finance and Oil. “They have given us fuel, credited us millions of dollars, and paid the bills for imports we could not afford. We are very grateful to them.”
Though it was primarily Nato powers who saved the revolution from extinction at the hands of Colonel Gaddafi’s forces, the Qataris have stepped in to help eastern Libya stave off an economic collapse caused by the stalling of the country’s oil production.
“We have fuel requirements worth $270,000,000 (£169m) a month in the liberated areas,” Mr Rishi claimed. “$120,000,000 of that is required for diesel just to run our power plants.”
Rocket attacks by Gaddafi’s troops in March damaged electrical engines and pumps at the rebels’ key oilfields at Misla and Sarir, halting eastern Libya’s oil production and threatening to shut down Benghazi’s massive power plant.
Frozen financial assets have also caused a shortage of liquid cash in the rebel economy. Initially, rebel officials say they made a deal with the trading house Vitol to receive fuel in three stages of shipments — enough for their short-term power needs — in return for a guarantee of future trade in raw oil once the Misla and Serer fields are functioning.
The first Vitol shipment of diesel, benzine and gas was delivered to Benghazi on credit. But Libyan oil officials say that they could not afford to pay off the bill before the second shipment was delivered. So Qatar stepped in with another loan in May.
“Qatar paid off $90,000,000 for that first instalment,” Mr Rishi added. “They also gave us one tanker for free with 11,000 metric tons of diesel and 21,000 metric tons of gasoline.”
When the Libyan Contact Group, the anti-Gaddafi coalition that includes Britain, France and America, agreed in May to set up a fund to help the rebel economy, Qatar immediately pledged the largest sum — between $400-500 million.
Officials in Misrata said that Qatar had taken the leading role in supporting the besieged city’s fuel needs as well as providing medical supplies, milk and some food supplies. Qatar also supplied a shipment of gas, the first to reach the city since the start of the siege, and has promised a further shipment of fuel.
A British security source in Libya said that Qatar was also fronting a programme to provide trainers — hired through British security companies — to rebel forces. The trainers include specialists in close air support.