TUNIS, August 21, 2011 (AFP) - After six months of observing a prudent neutrality towards Libya's warring sides, neighbouring Tunisia on Sunday finally recognised the rebel movement just as the battle for Tripoli began.
"The Tunisian government has decided to recognise the National Transitional Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people," said a government source quoted by the TAP news agency.
Since the beginning of the uprising in mid-February, Tunisia, which has taken in as many as 700,000 refugees, remained officially impartial due to neighbourly relations and the threat of the conflict spilling over onto its own soil.
But with the advance of the rebels and the launch of the battle for the capital Tripoli, NTC recognition became unavoidable, said analyst and historian Faycal Cherif, as Tunisia needed to position itself on a diplomatic level. Tunisia is the 29th country to officially acknowledge the NTC but is one of the most important to do so, he added, not least because of its geographic position.
Tunisia is currently sheltering around 100,000 Libyans from over the border, many of them taken in by Tunisian families.
Libyan representatives from both Moamer Kadhafi's regime and the rebellion have transited Tunisia, where negotiations and informal discussions have also been held, notably on the resort island of Djerba.
Libya's former prime minister Abdessalam Jalloud fled to Italy after boarding a plane on the island early Saturday, Rome confirmed.
Tunisian diplomat and former foreign minister Ahmed Ounais said it was also of symbolic importance: "Tunisia was the first country to stage a revolution and the one to spark the Arab Spring.
"With Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya, the Arab revolution has become a historic reality," he said.
Police sources say meanwhile that Kadhafi regime officials, such as oil chief Omran Aboukraa, are currently holed up in Tunisia.
"Libyans, whatever side they are on, knew throughout the past few months that they could find in us an impartial host," said Ounais.
"But as D-Day approaches, Tunis wanted to send the signal to Kadhafi's men that they would no longer be accepted other than as refugees," and not as political representatives, he said.
The Benghazi-based NTC said Tunisia's recognition was a clear message to Kadhafi that his end is near.
"We welcome any recognition from any country and regardless of the timing," said Fathi Baja, a member of the rebel council.
"Tunisia implicitly recognised the NTC when they received 150,000 refugees, opened the doors for NGOs (non-governmental organisations) to get inside Libya from their land, embraced many defectors and allowed them to have meetings and discussions," Fathi said.
"It is a message to Kadhafi that it is over."