TRIPOLI - U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that Tripoli could become an important security partner of Washington as he visited Libya on Dec. 17 for talks with new regime officials.
"We are and will be your friend and partner," Panetta said at a news conference with Libyan Prime Minister Abdel Rahim al-Kib.
"This new and free Libya can become an important security partner of the United States," he said, adding that Washington was looking forward to building a close partnership.
"We stand ready to offer whatever assistance in the spirit of friendship and a spirit of mutual respect."
But Panetta, who also met Defense Minister Osama Jouili, stressed that his talks in Tripoli did not involve military equipment.
"At this stage there was certainly no discussions involving arms or military equipment," he said when asked about the type of security cooperation he envisioned.
Earlier he had told the travelling press, including an AFP correspondent, that his brief visit to Tripoli was to confer with the country's new rulers on the security needs of their government.
"The purpose of my trip to Libya is to have an opportunity to look at that situation up close but to also pay tribute to the Libyan people to what they did in bringing (former leader Moammar) Gadhafi down and trying to establish a government for the future," Panetta said.
He acknowledged that Libya's rulers would face huge challenges but said he was confident they would "succeed in putting a democracy together in Libya."
"I'm confident that they're taking the right steps to reach out to all these groups and bring them together so that they will be part of one Libya and that they will be part of one defense system," he said.
Panetta said he expected the Libyans "to determine the future of Libya" and "determine what assistance they require from the United States and the international community."
Libya's rulers are facing a big challenge as they try to disarm militiamen who fought to topple Gadhafi and secure thousands of surface-to-air missiles stockpiled under the former regime.
Pressure to disarm the former rebels has mounted after local media reported several skirmishes between militia factions in Tripoli, with some resulting in casualties.
There are concerns that the Man-Portable Air Defense Systems, or MANPADS, could be used by militant groups against commercial airliners and helicopters.
For his part Libya's interim premier said the United States was willing to help Libya "without any interference."
Kib also acknowledged that his government had a difficult task ahead.
"We know how serious the issue is," he said, adding: "I'm very optimistic."
"The Libyan people are known to be peaceful and I'm sure that they will be back to that mentality," he said in English.
Panetta's visit came a day after the United Nations and the United States lifted sanctions on Libya's central bank in a bid to ease a cash crunch in the post-Gadhafi era, diplomats said.
The U.N. Security Council ended a freeze on the assets of the Central Bank of Libya and the Libyan Foreign Bank, which was ordered in February as part of sanctions against Gadhafi.
The U.S. government said it would be freeing more than $30 billion (23billion euros) of assets belonging to the central bank and LFB in a bid to help the new Libyan government.
The Tripoli authorities have stepped up calls in recent weeks to release the estimated $150 billion frozen abroad to help pay salaries and keep services running.
On top of the $30 billion held in the United States, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his government would immediately act to free about 6.5 billion pounds ($10 billion) held in Britain.
The easing of the sanctions "marks another significant moment in Libya's transition," Hague said in a statement.
"It means that Libya's government will now have full access to the significant funds needed to help rebuild the country, to underpin stability and to ensure that Libyans can make the transactions that are essential to everyday life."
Panetta was also to lay a wreath at the graves of 13 U.S. sailors killed in 1804 when their ship exploded during the very first foreign intervention by military forces of the recently independent United States against pirates based in North Africa.
He travelled to Libya from Turkey, where he held wide-ranging talks. On Dec. 15, he was in Iraq to take part in a ceremony marking the end of the U.S. mission there.