Western and Arab leaders Wednesday agreed to provide ragtag Libyan rebels with “material support” and funds, possibly from Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s frozen foreign bank accounts, as they escalated international pressure on the Libyan dictator to relinquish power.
They did not specify the type of material support they planned to offer, but several officials meeting in the Gulf nation of Qatar said some countries individually are considering arming the rebels.
The Libyan Contact Group, meeting for the first time, also demanded that Col. Gadhafi step down.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani told reporters that aid could include “all the other needs, including defense equipment.”
“It is time to help the Libyan people defend themselves and to defend the Libyan people,” he said.
U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 imposed a no-fly zone and an arms embargo on Libya. However, the resolution also permitted member states to take all means necessary to protect civilians.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have indicated that the resolution leaves open the possibility of arming the rebels.
Italy, Libya’s former colonial power, argued strongly in favor of supplying arms. Italy also has given diplomatic recognition to the rebel’s transitional council in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Italy was “morally justified” in aiding the rebels because Col. Gadhafis forces have moved tanks into civilian areas to try to foil NATO airstrikes.
Pro-Gadhafi forces also have adopted the tactic of riding in civilian vehicles mounted with heavy artillery in a bid to confuse NATO pilots.
“Either we make it possible for [the rebels] to defend themselves, or we withdraw from our obligation to support defending the population of Libya,” said Mr. Frattini.
Italy will host the next meeting of the Contact Group of 16 Western and Arab countries with representatives from the United Nations and Arab League. The African Union sent observers to the talks in the Qatari capital, Doha. The group was formed at a meeting in London two weeks ago.
Italian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maurizio Massari said earlier that allies may consider providing “defensive weapons” to the rebels.
“The discussion of arms is certainly on the table,” he said. “We are not talking about offensive arms. … Every country will decide. It is a political decision.”
Weeks of airstrikes have failed to dislodge the Gadhafi regime.
The rebels, many of whom had no experience in warfare until the start of the uprising in February, are often forced to rely on weapons captured from pro-Gadhafi forces.
They say they need arms and military training if they are to build on the advantage created by the airstrikes.
“If the airstrikes cannot protect civilians because [Col. Gadhafis] forces are embedded in residential areas, then obviously people have the right to have arms to protect themselves, their houses and their families,” Guma el-Gamaty, a rebel envoy in Britain, told The Washington Times in a phone interview from London.
The Contact Group said material support would be consistent with U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Britain has supplied the rebels with telecommunications equipment, including walkie-talkies. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that “there will be other non-lethal equipment” to come.
Contact Group leaders said they would work with the rebels to develop a “temporary financial mechanism” to assist with “short-term financial requirements and structural needs in Libya.”
The rebels have urged the international community to give them access to the regimes frozen cash, which they say rightfully belongs to the Libyan people.
The U.S. has frozen $32 billion of the Gadhafi regimes assets.
After the meeting in Doha, rebel officials said they may use cash from unfrozen accounts to buy weapons.
Qatar, the only Arab nation to recognize the rebel government, last week brokered the sale of more than $100 million in crude oil from rebel-held areas of Libya.
The Contact Group also called on Col. Gadhafi to resign and described the rebel council as “a legitimate interlocutor, representing the aspirations of Libyan people.”
“Gadhafi and his regime have lost all legitimacy, and he must leave power, allowing the Libyan people to determine their future,” according to a final statement from the meeting obtained by The Times.
Mahmoud Jibril, a member of the rebel council, is due in Washington this week for meetings with members of Congress and officials at the State and Defense departments.
“These meetings will allow us to continue to get a better sense of the opposition and the Transitional National Council and its vision for Libya,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
U.S. envoy Chris Stevens is in Benghazi for talks with the provisional government.
Moussa Koussa, Libyas former foreign minister who defected on March 30, was also in Doha on Wednesday. He was accompanied by another defector, Abdel Rahman Shalgham, Libyas former ambassador to the U.N.
Rebel sources said Mr. Koussa was not part of their delegation in Doha and that he did not meet anyone from their council.
“There are no plans to meet with Mr. Koussa now,” Mr. el-Gamaty said.
Mr. Koussa, who gained notoriety as the regimes intelligence chief, defected to Britain.
“Britain has no intention of imposing Mr. Koussa on the national council. They understand the sensitivities. They understand the negative reaction that might bring because this is a man who comes with very heavy baggage,” Mr. el-Gamaty said.
“Although we welcome his move to desert Gadhafi, that doesnt mean we have to welcome him with open arms,” he added.
The Contact Group also called for an immediate end to attacks against all civilians and for pro-Gadhafi forces to pull back from cities they have “forcibly entered, occupied or besieged” including Misrata, the largest city in western Libya still under partial rebel control.
In Misrata, rebel sources said the regimes forces escalated their offensive and that many people were killed and wounded.
“We must have U.N. forces here to protect civilians,” Mohamed, a rebel spokesman who declined to give his full name out of fear of reprisals, told The Times from Misrata.
“The human suffering is beyond imagination. We are going under,” he added.
In Tripoli, residents said NATO jets bombed sites around the Libyan capital.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.