PARIS—Russia recognized the Libyan rebel movement as the country’s acting leadership Thursday, a key endorsement hours ahead of an international conference seeking to map Libya’s future.

The conference in Paris of 60 world leaders and top envoys is also aimed at freeing up frozen Libyan assets held worldwide to help the opposition, and reconciling diplomatic differences over the NATO-led airstrike campaign that ousted iron-fisted leader Moammar Gadhafi.

The rebel-backed National Transitional Council is expected to present a detailed list of requests at the conference. It may seek short-term loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, U.S. officials said. While they do not want international peacekeepers, the rebels may seek some kind of civilian U.N. police presence, the officials said.

Russia was critical of the NATO military campaign, and the Russian envoy to the Paris conference said he will defend Russia’s economic interests in Libya.

A short statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday said it recognized the National Transitional Council, and diplomatic relations between Moscow and Tripoli will continue.

France, hosting Thursday’s Libya conference, received the U.N. go-ahead to unfreeze money from Gadhafi’s regime held in French banks and give it to the rebels.

“France has just received authorization to transfer euro1.5 billion which belongs to the Libyans,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on RTL radio Thursday.

“We have to aid the transitional council because the country is devastated. The humanitarian situation is difficult. They lack water, gas, electricity,” he said.

Late Wednesday, Britain’s Royal Air Force delivered about 280 million Libyan dinars to the country’s Central Bank in Benghazi, following a U.N. agreement to lift sanctions on about $1.6 billion of the $20 billion assets held in the U.K.

The notes were printed in Britain, but seized in March under asset freezes. Britain will deliver a total of 1.86 billion Libyan dinars over the coming days.

“The bank notes will be used to pay the wages of Libyan public sector employees, including nurses, doctors, teachers and police officers,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who will attend the Paris talks. He said the cash would also be used to stock ATMs.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, coming to the Paris conference, hopes to announce that $1.5 billion in Gadhafi regime assets frozen in the United States have been distributed on behalf of the rebels, U.S. officials said.

That money, about half of the liquid portion of the more than $30 billion in frozen Libyan assets, was freed up last week when the U.N. Security Council eased sanctions against Libya.

Years of insurgent violence in Iraq are a warning to leaders at Thursday’s conference of the potential for ongoing postwar bloodshed.

“We are going to turn the page of the dictatorship and the fighting, and open a new era of cooperation with democratic Libya,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy insisted in a speech Wednesday to French diplomats.

The fall of Gadhafi, who remains at large but whose regime has all but collapsed under the onslaught of NATO-led air power and rebel fighters, has fanned talk of parallels with the U.S.-led ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 — notably among Iraqis who warn that Libya’s postwar aftermath could devolve into similar chaos.

Much of the responsibility to avert such a future is being placed upon Libya’s one-time rebels. The conference, 42 years to the day after Gadhafi seized power in a coup, is shaping up as a coming-out party for the NTC, which appears poised to succeed him.

NTC leaders Mustafa Abdul-Jalil and Mahmoud Jibril are expected to be among 13 heads of state, 19 prime ministers, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and leaders of NATO, the European Union, African Union, Arab League, and the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation at the closed-door meeting. Sarkozy and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, two of the most vocal backers of the rebels, will co-host.

Libya faces a tricky alchemy in the weeks ahead: Many rebels have different tribal loyalties, the country is awash in weapons — some seized from bombed-out or pillaged army barracks — and Gadhafi loyalists could be a wild card. The Libyan council must also restore electricity, battle food and water shortages, reopen schools — and, a key priority, pay salaries.

A French official criticized as “a big mistake” the U.S. decision in Iraq to fire police, soldiers and members of Saddam’s Baath party, “who all of a sudden were without jobs, kept their weapons, were in the opposition and had no future.”

Thursday’s gathering will mark the end of the so-called “contact group” on Libya — the circle of nations formed in Paris in March, and attendees will now create a larger “Friends of Libya” group, a British official said.

French officials said the NTC has laid out an 18-month timetable in which a panel drawn from around Libya will draft a constitution to be voted on in a national referendum, and then national elections will be held.

The United States, already committed in Iraq and Afghanistan, largely left center stage on the Libya effort to its NATO allies plus key Arab allies, like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

French officials say at least $50 billion linked to Gadhafi is believed to be squirreled away in banks across the world. British officials have put the figure as high as $110 billion.AP