* Libya says “no legal grounds” to divert funds to rebels
* Finance Minister says country has “contingency reserves”
TRIPOLI, April 13 (Reuters) - Libya said on Wednesday it had reserves in gold and other assets that would help its people cope with sanctions, but it also called for funds it holds abroad to be “unfrozen immediately” for humanitarian needs.
Planning and Finance Minister Abdulhafid Zlitni estimated that about $120 billion of Libya’s assets had been frozen as part of sanctions, but that the North African country still had significant “contingency reserves,” without giving details.
He also told a news conference there were “no legal grounds” for diverting Libyan assets to rebels fighting the government of Muammar Gaddafi.
“We have confidence that the banks cannot do that, they don’t have the legal grounds to do it,” Zlitni said.
Earlier on Wednesday, a group of Western powers and Middle Eastern states called for the first time for Gaddafi to step aside, and said they would work to create a financial mechanism to help rebels run the eastern region of Libya they control.
The World Food Programme said Libya was facing a humanitarian crisis and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the group’s meeting in Doha that up to 3.6 million people, or more than half the population, could need assistance.
Zlitni suggested Libyans were adjusting to the hardships.
“Let me tell you that the time of the shock has gone and the Libyans are now more than capable of standing and resisting it, and adapting their life accordingly,” he said.
“There is always what we call the contingency reserves, they are still here. The Libyans are wealthy, their accounts exceed 50 billion dinars ($41.39 billion) in banks .... which can make them resist long-term austerities,” he said.
An International Monetary Fund report put Libya’s net foreign assets held by the central bank and the sovereign wealth fund at $150 billion at the end of last year.
Some of these assets were abroad and have been seized as part of sanctions against Libya.
Of the around $120 billion he said were frozen, Zlitni said some were “in euros, some in pounds, some in yen, they are in stocks, in real estate ... these funds belong to the Libyans, the Libyan people will decide how to use them, not us.”
“Even when assets were frozen, there were clauses to say these are frozen but can be used for food, medicine, legal matters, electricity, fuel et cetera ... our concern is therefore that assets should be unfrozen immediately for humanitarian needs,” he said. (Reporting by Mussab al-Khairalla; writing by Fredrik Dahl; editing by Myra MacDonald) ($1=1.208 Libyan Dinar)