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Italy recognizes rebels as legitimate Libyan voice

- Associated Press - Monday, April 4, 2011

BREGA, Libya (AP) — Italy recognized opponents of Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi as the country's only legitimate voice on Monday as the rebels advanced on a war-battered oil town and a Gadhafi envoy pressed other European countries for help in ending the crisis.

Italy is the third country, after France and Qatar, to recognize the rebel-led Libyan National Transitional Council as the North Africa nation's only legitimate governing body. After speaking with the council's foreign envoy, Ali al-Essawi, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini announced the decision and said the only way to resolve the conflict in the former Italian colony is for Col. Gadhafi to leave — along with his sons, who lead the militias that are attacking rebel forces.

"Any solution for the future of Libya has a precondition: that Gadhafi's regime leaves ... that Gadhafi himself and the family leave the country," Mr. Frattini said.

Mr. Frattini also said proposals by a Libyan government envoy Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi, who met with Greek officials Sunday, were "not credible" because nothing was said about Col. Gadhafi's departure.

Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas said that, based on Mr. al-Obeidi's comments, "it appears that the regime is seeking a solution," but few other details of the Athens talks were released publicly. Mr. al-Obeidi, a former Libyan prime minister, will travel next to Turkey and Malta in a sign that Col. Gadhafi's regime may be softening its hard line in the face of more than two weeks of sustained international airstrikes.

Mr. Droutsas said Greece stressed the international community's call for Libya to comply with the U.N. resolution that authorized the airstrikes and demanded that Col. Gadhafi and the rebels end hostilities. He said the message was: "Full respect and implementation of the United Nations decisions, an immediate cease-fire, an end to violence and hostilities, particularly against the civilian population of Libya."

Col. Gadhafi's government has declared several cease-fires but has not abided by them, and the council says it will not negotiate with him or settle for less than his ouster.

Col. Gadhafi's efforts to crush the uprising that began Feb. 15 led the international community to approve the U.N. resolution and launch airstrikes, which initially were U.S.-led but are now controlled by NATO. Of the popular uprisings across the Arab world inspired by those in Tunisia and Egypt, Libya's has been the most violent.

Mr. al-Obeidi said Friday he was attempting to hold talks with the United States, Britain and France, three of the main forces behind the campaign, in an effort the halt the airstrikes, which have pounded Libya's troops and armor and grounded its air force.

Libyan rebel fighters pushed into the strategic oil town of Brega on Monday and controlled much of the town, though there were bursts of artillery and shelling from Col. Gadhafi's forces. The town, like several others on Libya's eastern coast, has gone back and forth between rebel and loyalist hands in weeks of fighting.

"We're advancing. By today we'll have full control of Brega," said Salam Idrisi, 42, a rebel fighter. "We're more organized now, and that's played a big role."

Rebel forces made up of defected army units and armed civilians have seized much of Libya's eastern coast, but they have been unable to push westward toward the capital, Tripoli.

In Rome, Mr. Frattini did not rule out delivering weapons to the rebels — a subject of great debate among the countries that have backed the air campaign against Col. Gadhafi's forces.

Mr. Frattini said arming the rebels could be a last-resort measure "since we cannot fight on the ground," but one that would not contradict the U.N. Security Council resolution, which imposed a no-fly zone over the North African nation and called for the protection of Libyan civilians.

On Sunday, Col. Gadhafi's forces pressed on with attacks against Misrata, the last key city in the western half of the country still largely under rebel control despite a weekslong assault.

Government troops besieged civilian areas for about two hours Sunday morning with Grad rockets and mortar shells and lined a main street with snipers, said a doctor in the city.

Two shells landed on a field hospital, killing one person and injuring 11, he said. The attacks, including tank fire, began again after nightfall, he said. He did not want to be identified by name out of fear for his security.

A Turkish ship carrying 250 wounded from Misrata docked in Benghazi, the rebels' de facto capital, on Sunday. The boat, which carried medical supplies, also was expected to pick up about 60 wounded people being treated in various hospitals in Benghazi, as well as 30 Turks and 40 people from Greece, Ukraine, Britain, Uzbekistan, Germany and Finland.

A military plane from Jordan landed in Benghazi on Monday carrying medical supplies. Jordanian Col. Aqab Abu Abu Windi, who arrived on the plane, said it contained 7½ tons of medical supplies to help the Libyan people and promised, "This plane is just the beginning."

A leader of the rebel movement, meanwhile, sought to ease concerns from Western governments about its character and goals, emphasizing in an interview that the rebels will not allow Islamic extremists to hijack their plans to install a parliamentary democracy in place of Col. Gadhafi's four-decade rule.

Alessandra Rizzo reported from Rome. Associated Press writers Ben Hubbard in Benghazi and Elena Becatoros in Athens contributed to this report.

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