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France vows to step up airstrikes in Libya

European officials portray assistance as effort to fill rebels’ military gap

PARIS (AP) ― Europe has moved closer to doing what it said it wouldn’t do in Libya ― directly jump into the bid to overthrow leader Moammar Gadhafi.

France said Wednesday it has already sent military officers to work with Libyan rebels on the ground, in addition to stepping up airstrikes. Italy and Britain have said they’re also sending military officers.

European officials portray their assistance as an effort to fill the military gap between Gadhafi’s forces ― and turn the tide without overstepping rules of the U.N.-sanctioned military operation to protect civilians.

The acting foreign minister of the National Transitional Council said the rebel movement’s political wing wants more, like weapons for an “official army” and forces from friendly nations if that’s what it takes to topple the Libyan leader.

“We have made no official demand, (but) all possibilities are open,” Ali al-Issaoui said at a news conference.

The opposition council’s visiting president, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, said rebels have already received arms “but they are not sufficient.”

Hours earlier, President Nicolas Sarkozy said France would step up its share of the NATO-led airstrikes aimed at knocking out Gadhafi’s military apparatus to protect civilians.

“We will help you,” Sarkozy promised Abdel-Jalil, who said he had asked France “to intensify the support accorded to the Libyan revolution.”

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

French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Christine Fages said in an online briefing Wednesday that France had also agreed to place “a small number of liaison officers alongside our special envoy in (the rebel stronghold) of Benghazi.”

Italy, too, announced plans to send help ― 10 military instructors ― although Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa, like France, ruled out sending ground troops. Britain said Tuesday it was sending up to 20 military advisers to help Libya’s rebel forces.

British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke separately Wednesday with United States, Italian and Qatari leaders.

A Downing Street spokesperson, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said Cameron “emphasized the urgent importance of placing continued military and diplomatic pressure on the Gadhafi regime in order to protect the many thousands of civilians who remain under attack.”

The spokesperson added that there “was strong agreement on the need to enforce” the U.N. Security Council resolution opening the way to a military mission to protect civilians.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton went a step further, saying out loud what other nations often prefer to whisper.

“For the European Union, we remain resolute in seeking a rapid political transition in Libya,” Ashton told reporters in Abu Dhabi, where she was attending meetings. “We believe the Gadhafi regime must cede power and allow the Libyan people to determine their own future.”

In Washington, the Obama administration said Wednesday it plans to give the Libyan opposition $25 million in non-lethal assistance ― the first direct U.S. aid to the rebels ― after weeks of assessing their capabilities and intentions.

Washington ensured that the surplus American goods cannot be converted into offensive military assets, officials said.

The aid would support the Transitional Council and “our efforts to protect civilians and the civilian populated areas that are under threat of attack from their own government in Libya,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said.

The list of aid, mainly from Pentagon stocks, is still being constituted but now covers items such as medical supplies, uniforms, boots, tents, personal protective gear, radios and Halal meals, officials said.

French government spokesman Francois Baroin suggested that less than 10 officers were serving in a liaison capacity in Libya and insisted the move conforms to the U.N. resolution authorizing the international military campaign in Libya.

A French diplomat said the French officers are not combat troops and are not teaching Libyan rebels weapons skills. Instead, he said, they are working on logistics and organizational help. He would not say how long the officers have been in Benghazi. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because of the operation’s sensitivity.

France ― the first to declare support for the Libyan opposition and carry out the first airstrikes ― sent a diplomatic envoy to Benghazi earlier this month.

La Russa said that even if NATO has destroyed a lot of Gadhafi’s defense structure, “what remains is still superior to the insurgents’ capabilities.”

“They still have non-insignificant military capability,” La Russa said of Gadhafi’s forces.

La Russa met with British Defense Secretary Liam Fox, who said many of the Libyan rebels “have little understanding of weaponry or military tactics.”

“The best way in which we can assist them is to give them some technical capabilities in how to organize themselves,” Fox said.

The British minister said the situation was “not that different from what’s happening in Afghanistan, where we’ve decided that training up security forces so that the Afghans themselves can look after their security is the best way forward.”

Al-Issaoui, the opposition official, spelled out what he said is the human cost of the confrontation with Gadhafi’s forces: 10,000 dead, 30,000 injured, with 7,000 of them in serious condition, and 20,000 youths who have disappeared. He claimed they had been kidnapped or imprisoned.

In addition, refugees have fled to neighboring Tunisia by the tens of thousands, with a surge in crossings over the past week, according to aid officials, as Libyan forces pound the west, particularly Misrata.

The Libyan people “must buy arms to assure their self-defense,” al-Issaoui said. “Airstrikes do not suffice to protect civilians.”

Abdel-Jalil, the opposition leader, said in an interview with France-24 TV that rebels have received arms “from purchases or from friends,” but would not name the friends supplying the arms. Asked if Qatar was among them, he said its role was “very limited.”

Qatar is the lone Arab country to actively participate in airstrikes.

If the U.N. resolution opening the way for the international military operation doesn’t lead to Gadhafi’s departure, “we could authorize the presence on Libyan territory of forces from Arab countries or friendly countries,” he said.

The statement was a major departure from the Libyan rebels’ position ― to topple Gadhafi without outside help. But Gadhafi “is the one who brought foreign intervention to Libya by using these mercenaries,” he said, referring to mercenaries from other African nations found fighting with his forces.

The French government spokesman reiterated that France would “in no way and in no form” send ground troops to Libya.

Abdel-Jalil insisted that the ragtag rebel force and fledgling opposition governing council would respect international norms if they emerge victorious in their battle with Gadhafi, who has ruled Libya for 42 years.

“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.