China meets Libya rebels in latest blow to Gaddafi

TRIPOLI – China made its first confirmed contact with Libyan rebels in the latest diplomatic setback for Muammar Gaddafi, and France said on Friday it was working with those close to the veteran ruler to persuade him to leave power.\r\n

The meeting in Qatar between a Chinese diplomat and the leader of the rebel National Transitional Council follows a spate of defections by high profile figures this week including top oil official and former prime minister Shukri Ghanem.

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Libyan rebels and NATO have made Gaddafi’s departure a condition for agreeing a ceasefire in a conflict that has killed thousands, but he emphatically told visiting South African President Jacob Zuma this week he would not leave Libya.

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A NATO-led military alliance extended its mission to protect civilians in Libya for a further 90 days this week, and France said it was stepping up military pressure as well as working with those close to Gaddafi to try to convince him to quit.

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“He is more and more isolated,” French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told Europe 1 radio. “There have been more defections around him and we have received messages from his close entourage which has understood that he must leave power.”

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“We will increase the military pressure as we have been doing for several days…but at the same time we are talking with everyone who can convince him to leave power,” he said, speaking by telephone during a visit to Israel.

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In Beijing, a terse Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said Beijing’s ambassador to Qatar, Zhang Zhiliang, had met and “exchanged views on developments in Libya” with Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the chairman of the Council, which is trying to offer itself as a credible temporary alternative to embattled Gaddafi.

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The ministry gave no details of the talks but the meeting itself was an indication that Beijing wants to keep open lines of communication with the rebel forces that could supplant Gaddafi, even as it urges a political solution.

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China was among the emerging powers that abstained in March when the United Nations Security Council voted to authorise NATO-led air strikes. But China also quickly condemned the subsequent expansion of those strikes, and since then has repeatedly urged a ceasefire and a political compromise. 

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 China was never especially close to Gaddafi, but it generally tries to avoid taking firm sides in other countries’ domestic conflicts, including in the Middle East, where it has been buying growing quantities of oil.

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BODIES OF AFRICAN REFUGEES FOUND

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In Tripoli, Libyan television reported that forces of the “crusader coalition” had shelled civilian and military targets in Al Jufrah, 450 km (300 miles) southeast of Tripoli.

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In Tunisia, a U.N. official said the bodies of 150 African refugees fleeing turmoil in Libya had been recovered off the Tunisian coast after the vessels carrying them illegally to Europe got into difficulty.

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Tunisian authorities rescued 570 people, but many others went into the water when a stampede to get off the small fishing boats — combined with the effect of rough seas — capsized some of the vessels, a Tunisian official said. In all about 250 people were reported on Thursday as missing from the vessels.

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With the United Nations warning that his government was running out of food, the Libyan capital Tripoli this week saw the first big protest in months against Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.

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Now in its fourth month, the Libyan conflict is deadlocked, with rebels unable to break out of their strongholds and advance towards Tripoli, where Gaddafi appears to be entrenched.

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Rebels control the east of Libya around Benghazi, where the rebel Council is based, and a mountain range stretching from the town of Zintan, 150 km (95 miles) south of Tripoli, towards the western border with Tunisia.

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Gaddafi says the rebels are armed criminals and al Qaeda militants, and has called the NATO intervention an act of colonial aggression designed to grab Libya’s plentiful oil. 

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 Western governments say they believe they are wearing down Gaddafi’s ability to control Libya through a combination of diplomatic pressure and military action, although the U.S. role in the conflict in particular has been controversial at home.

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US LAWMAKERS TUSSLE OVER LIBYA

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The House of Representatives prepared to vote on differing approaches to U.S. involvement in Libya, one directing President Barack Obama to pull U.S. forces out of NATO operations and a second that demands more information about U.S. strategy.

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The resolutions are a response from U.S. lawmakers in both main parties who are unhappy the United States is now in a third conflict after Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Guma El-Gamaty, a rebel official based in Britian, said rebel fighters fought a skirmish overnight with Gaddafi loyalists near rebel-held Ajdbaiyah town in eastern Libya.

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Explosions were heard in central Tripoli on Thursday evening, following on from similar blasts in the early hours, when aircraft could be heard flying overhead.

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Ghanem, the top official who oversaw Libya’s oil and gas sector, was the second most senior official to quit and rebels said the defection showed that the end is nearing for Gaddafi almost four months into a rebellion against him.

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But the Libyan government said it would send a representative to the next meeting of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries in Vienna on June 8.