- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2011

PARIS (AP) — France vowed Wednesday to step up airstrikes on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s forces and acknowledged that it has military officers already working with Libyan rebels on the ground.

France and Italy joined Britain in announcing their commitment of military officers to help the rebels, who have failed to rout Moammar Gadhafi’s forces despite weeks of NATO-led airstrikes.

Both France and Italy remained firm against sending ground troops into Libya, a dangerous and politically risky step. However NATO, which is leading the U.N.-sanctioned international military operation to protect civilians, is now acknowledging that airstrikes alone cannot stop the heavy shelling of cities by Gadhafi’s forces.

Gadhafi’s forces attacked a mountain town and a besieged coastal city Wednesday, part of a drive to crush pockets of resistance in the western part of the country that is largely under the Libyan leader’s control.

“France has placed alongside our special envoy in Benghazi a small number of liaison officers,” French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Christine Fages said in an online briefing Wednesday.

The officers are working on technical, logistical, and organizational help, she said. She did not indicate how long they have been there.

French government spokesman Francois Baroin suggested less than 10 officers were involved and insisted the move conforms to the U.N. resolution authorizing the international military campaign in Libya. France sent a diplomatic envoy to Benghazi earlier this month.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy met Wednesday with visiting Libyan opposition leader Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who said he asked France “to intensify the support accorded to the Libyan revolution.”

“We will intensify the strikes,” Sarkozy responded, according to a presidential aide. The aide was not authorized to be publicly named according to presidential policy.

“We will help you,” Sarkozy promised his Libyan visitor. He gave no details.

A NATO official said there has been no pressure from France to increase allied strikes, but that France might increase its own contribution. The official was not authorized to be publicly named.

In Rome, Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said 10 military instructors will be going to Libya to help the rebels, but again ruled out sending Italian ground troops.

Britain said Tuesday it was sending up to 20 military advisers to help Libya’s rebel forces. The military personnel, including officers with logistical and intelligence expertise, will work with the National Transitional Council, the political wing of the rebel movement.

While France helped lead the push for international intervention in Libya, it appeared wary of lobbying for a ground campaign.

“We do not envisage deploying ground troops in any way,” Baroin said.

French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said the U.N. Security Council should weigh whether to send ground troops. “It’s a real question that merits international reflection,” he said after a Cabinet meeting Wednesday.

But Baroin said France would not request another U.N. resolution on the subject.

Abdel-Jalil insisted that the ragtag Libyan rebel force and fledgling opposition governing council would respect international norms if they emerge victorious in the battle with Gadhafi.

“We promise to the international community that we will work to build a democratic state where the chief of state arrives in power not on a tank, but by a ballot box,” he said. “We are also committed to working to fight terrorism and stop illegal immigration.”

Tensions over waves of illegal migrants from North Africa entering Europe in recent weeks have strained relations among European neighbors and clouded the international campaign in Libya.

NATO’s top military commander, U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis was in Prague for talks with Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg on Wednesday and Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra on Thursday. Stavridis’ visit comes as NATO is seeking to get military contributions from member states that have not participated in the campaign in Libya.

The Czech government has said earlier it was not planning to contribute troops for the NATO mission in Libya, partly because it has not been asked to do so.

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Alessandra Rizzo in Rome, Slobo Lekic in Brussels and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report.