McCain On Libyan Rebels: 'They Are My Heroes'

Republican Sen. John McCain visits Benghazi and calls the Libyan rebels "heroes." He urges the Obama administration to recognize the rebels' transitional government.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

They are my heroes, those words today from Senator John McCain describing Libya's rebel fighters. McCain made the statement while in eastern Libya in Benghazi, where he met with rebel leaders.

He called on Washington to recognize the rebels' national council as the legitimate voice of the Libyan people. McCain also said the anti-Gadhafi forces urgently need funding, weapons and training.

But as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, the senator said U.S. ground troops are not needed.

PETER KENYON: After weeks of looking to America for support and inspiration in their quest to topple Colonel Moammar Gadhafi, Libyan rebels found their champion in the outspoken Arizona Republican. Washington may be anxiously wondering who the rebels are, but not John McCain.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I've met these brave fighters and they are not al-Qaida. They are Libyan patriots.

(Soundbite of applause)

KENYON: McCain called on all nations, especially the U.S., to recognize the National Transitional Council in Benghazi. He said some of the Gadhafi regime's frozen assets should be redirected to the rebels and the U.S. should facilitate the delivery of weapons to rebel fighters. He clarified that by facilitate he meant not directly arming the rebels, but ensuring that they receive weapons as the U.S. did in the 1980s with the mujahideen battling the Russians in Afghanistan.

Such a call raises alarm bells in some circles. Critics recall that some of those fighters Washington helped arm and train in Afghanistan later joined al-Qaida. McCain dismissed questions about who the rebel leaders are, saying their histories are clear and none of them has any record of supporting radical Islam. The danger, he warned, could come as the conflict bogs down into a stalemate.

Sen. McCAIN: I'll be very frank. I do worry that if there is a stalemate here, that it could open the door to radical Islamic fundamentalism because of the frustration that thousands and thousands of young people would feel as they are deprived of participating in democracy in the united Libya.

KENYON: McCain said NATO air strikes must urgently be stepped up. He praised the administration's decision to deploy Predator drones to Libya, but said he would never understand why American aircraft especially suited to this type of mission, the A10 and the AC130, were taken out of the fight.

For Libyans disappointed by what they see as relatively ineffective NATO-led air strikes, McCain's blunt comments were a tonic. Here's how he dealt with the question about the prospects for a political solution to the crisis.

Sen. McCAIN: I think the political resolution is one that calls for Gadhafi to be one of three places, with his friend Hugo Chavez, the International Criminal Court or with Hitler and Stalin.

(Soundbite of applause)

KENYON: In a single day, McCain managed to boost America's image here more than weeks of comments from the White House. Whether his call to action will be as warmly received in the war-weary corridors of power in Washington is another question.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Benghazi.

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