The Cable

The Libyan rebels take control of the D.C. embassy

Officials, friends, and supporters of the Libyan Transitional National Council (TNC) convened on the sidewalk outside the Watergate complex this afternoon to sing and celebrate the formal reopening of the Libyan embassy in Washington, DC, which is now officially under the TNC's control.

The new charge d'affaires Ali Aujali presided over the event, giving a speech to the assembled crowd, unlocking the doors, and inviting guests inside for an impromptu press conference. Aujali was quite familiar with the surroundings. He served Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi as the Libyan regime's top representative in Washington for years before defecting to the rebel side in February.

When your humble Cable guy snuck into the Libyan embassy in March, there were still huge posters of Qaddafi on the wall and stacks of his famous "Green Book" manifesto piled high in the lobby. But today, all signs of the regime had been removed. The space where Qaddafi's portrait once hung is now filled with a poster of Omar Muktar, the leader of the Libyan anti-colonial uprising who was hanged by the Italians in 1931. All of the green regime flags have been replaced by the tricolor pre-Qaddafi monarchial flag that has become a symbol of the revolution.

"For the first time in 50 years, this embassy represents a free Libya," Aujali said to the assembled crowd outside. "This new embassy, under the control of the Transitional National Council, is committed to serving the Libyan people and advancing the call for freedom and democracy in Libya. The Libyan people are not in this struggle alone. They will be forever grateful to the United States for coming to their aid in their greatest time of need."

But the event was also peppered with constant reminders that the TNC, despite being recognized by the Obama administration as the official government of Libya last month, is still in the midst of battle and  struggling with the U.S. government to get control of the billions of dollars of Qaddafi assets that have been frozen by U.S. and U.N. sanctions.

"Diplomatic recognition is not an end in itself, but rather an important step toward bringing greater cooperation between the TNC and the United States. I am hopeful that the United States government will soon move forward with releasing the frozen assets in the U.S. that belong to the Libyan people," Aujali said. "We need immediate access to these resources to avert a further humanitarian crisis."

On the street, we met some Libyan-Americans, including Heba Benomran (pictured below), who told us she had driven all morning from Columbus, OH, to attend the ceremony. Heba carried a message, "Thank you America," printed on a sign and she's even set up a website to sell Libyan rebel apparel.

Inside the embassy, Aujali took questions from the press on the next steps for the TNC effort in Washington. He said he was confident that State and Treasury Departments would soon deliver good news to the TNC on releasing some frozen funds. He said he expects a current drive to unfreeze international assets that are frozen by United Nations Security Council resolutions to succeed as well. The U.N. sanctions committee is reviewing that issue now.

But Aujali disagreed with the State Department's repeated insistence that the money goes to humanitarian purposes only, and not toward buying weapons.

"If Qaddafi was killing his people with potatoes and eggs, I would accept that. But Qaddafi is killing his people with real weapons. We must have arms to defend ourselves," he said, adding that the TNC has the option of getting arms from other countries.

We found two U.S. officials at the event: Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Easter Affairs and Ambassador-designate to Bahrain Thomas Krajeski, and Alyce Abdalla, the current desk officer for Libya at the State Department.

"It's a good day for Libyans and a good day for Americans," Krajeski told The Cable. What about the funds? "We're working on it," he said.


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The Cable

Biden’s basketball diplomacy in Beijing

Vice President Joe Biden is in China to kick off a week-long Asia tour and the first thing he did after arriving at the Beijing airport was to speed over the Olympic basketball arena to take in a game between Georgetown University and the Shanxi Brave Dragons of the Chinese Basketball Association.

"Once again, sports diplomacy lives in U.S.-China relations!" Victor Cha, former National Security Council Asia official and Georgetown's director of Asian Studies, told The Cable. Cha is accompanying the team on their tour of China. He compared it to the ping-pong diplomacy between the U.S. and China that helped thaw the relationship ahead of President Richard Nixon's visit there in 1972.

Cha told The Cable that Biden interacted extensively with the Chinese spectators and there were good vibes all around. The loquacious vice president reportedly carried on a conversation in English with an entire section of Chinese spectators, telling jokes and receiving many high-fives. Biden was joined at the game by the new Ambassador to China Gary Locke, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, NSC Senior Director for Asia Danny Russel, and China's ambassador to the United States Zhang Yesui.

On the Georgetown delegation, in addition to Cha, were Georgetown University President Jack DeGioia, as well as Chairman of the Board and former National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Not only that, the Hoyas beat the Dragons 98-81.

Their next game tomorrow night is against the Bayi Rockets, the Chinese People's Liberation Army team. Cha said that the upcoming game was "a great way to expand people-to-people contacts with the military, another goal of U.S. policy."

But the Hoyas are going to have to conduct that part of their diplomatic effort without Biden's help. He's off to the Southwest China city of Chengdu before returning to Beijing and then heading off to Mongolia and Japan.

The White House said Georgetown's two-week trip to China, "reflects an ongoing push to expand people-to-people exchanges between our two countries, as well as an effort to strengthen the U.S.-China relationship through sport."

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