WASHINGTON -- Arizona Sen. John McCain said Thursday during a trip to Libya to meet with the nation's new rulers that the Libyan people "have inspired the world."

"They have paid an enormous price for their freedom, but the sacrifice of the Libyan people has delivered their great nation to the shores of a new world full of new hope; a chance for all Libyans to know lasting peace, dignity and justice," he told reporters at a news conference.

McCain was joined by three other Republican senators in the highest-profile American delegation to visit the country since the ouster of longtime leader Muammar Qaddafi

McCain, Mark Kirk of Illinois, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida met with the head of the National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, and other high-ranking officials of the group that is now governing Libya after the rebels forced Qaddafi from power. 

Qaddafi'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, toured Martyrs' Square.They traveled from Malta, where they met with Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi on Wednesday. 

After months of fighting, anti-Qaddafi forces seized control of the capital Tripoli and much the country late last month. Battles still continue in three areas -- Qaddafi'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, the early rebel stronghold. 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 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.

The trip contrasted sharply to the last visit by McCain and Graham to Tripoli in August 2009, when they met with Qaddafi and his son Muatassim to discuss the possible delivery of non-lethal defense equipment as the erratic Libyan leader was moving to normalize his relations with the international community.

According to a classified document released by WikiLeaks, the delegation, which included McCain, Graham and two other senators, Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins, held back-to-back meetings with Muatassim.

During that visit, McCain characterized the overall pace of the bilateral relationship as excellent during and noted the drastic changes over the previous five years. He also assured Muatassim that the United States wanted to provide Libya with the equipment it needs for its security, the WikiLeaks cable said.

It also noted the senators met with Qaddafi late at night and he hardly said a word. A note at the bottom of the memo said the delegation was told that they had to postpone the meeting from the afternoon because Qaddafi likes to nap after he breaks his fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.