WASHINGTON — Four Republican senators traveled to Libya on Thursday to meet with the nation's new rulers, the highest-profile American delegation to visit the country since the ouster of longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi.
The four lawmakers — John McCain of Arizona, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida — planned to meet with members of the National Transitional Council, which is now governing Libya after the rebels forced Gadhafi from power. Gadhafi's whereabouts remain unknown, but the new leaders suspect he is hiding in the southern desert of the North African nation.
The senators, whose brief visit was largely shrouded in secrecy, also planned to tour Martyrs' Square and hold a news conference with reporters. They traveled from Malta, where they met with Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi on Wednesday.
After months of fighting, anti-Gadhafi forces seized control of Tripoli and much the country late last month. Battles still continue in three areas — Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, Bani Walid and the southern city of Sabha.
The leaders of Britain, France and Turkey have visited Libya, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman has traveled to Benghazi. But the congressional group was the most significant American presence as Libya begins a new chapter.
McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and panel member Graham had pressed President Barack Obama for U.S. military intervention in Libya, weeks before the U.N. Security Council voted in March to authorize military action to protect civilians and impose a no-fly zone. McCain had invoked the humanitarian disasters in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s.
When other lawmakers criticized Obama for acting with limited congressional consultation, McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, defended the president.
In April, McCain traveled to Benghazi, where he called the rebels "patriots" and "heroes."
Rubio is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kirk serves on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations.