Misrata: Signs of discord emerged on Wednesday in the NATO alliance over the air campaign against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, as Italy said it favoured a ceasefire and political talks while France dismissed the idea.
China also signalled a shift in its stand on the conflict, describing the rebels as a "dialogue partner," while Libyan television said that "dozens" of people had been killed in Zlitan after NATO ships shelled the town.
Four months into the uprising, and three months since NATO war planes began bombing Libya, the rebels are making only slow gains in their march on the capital Tripoli to topple Gaddafi.
"The need to look for a ceasefire has become more pressing," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told parliament. "I believe that as well as the ceasefire, which is the first stage toward a political negotiation, a humanitarian stop to military action is fundamental to allow immediate humanitarian aid."
French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero reacted sharply to Frattini`s comments, which reflected Italian anxiety for some time over the NATO operation.
"The coalition was in complete accord two weeks ago at the contact group meeting in Abu Dhabi: We have to intensify the pressure on Gaddafi. Any pause in operations would risk allowing him to gain time and reorganize himself," Valero told reporters.
In Rome, foreign ministry spokesmen played down Frattini`s comments, saying this was not an Italian proposal and that it had been discussed among others at a Cairo meeting on June 18 of European Union, U.N., African and Arab officials.
"There is no specific Italian proposal on this. What Minister Frattini said in parliament this morning is that Italy is interested in looking at all ideas which could relieve civilian suffering," the spokesman said.
He said the ceasefire, an idea the United Nations has been pushing without success for some time, could apply to rebel-held Misrata and the Western Mountains region.
At the same time, the African Union chief said in Addis Ababa that the West would eventually have to accept an AU ceasefire plan, saying the air bombardments were not working.
"(The bombing campaign) was something which they thought would take 15 days," Jean Ping, chairman of the AU Commission, told Reuters. "The stalemate is already there. There is no other way (than the AU plan). They will (endorse it)."
The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC), a Saudi-based grouping of 57 Muslim countries, also said it had sent a delegation that arrived in Libya on Wednesday to mediate.
It would meet the rebels in Benghazi and Gaddafi officials in Tripoli, a statement said, but gave no more details.
CHINA SHIFTS GROUND
The debate over a ceasefire comes as Libya`s rebels, who have made steady progress winning support abroad and isolating Gaddafi on the international stage, secured Beijing`s recognition as a "dialogue partner."
"China sees you as an important dialogue partner," Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told Mahmoud Jibril, diplomatic chief of the Benghazi-based rebel National Transitional Council in Beijing. The comments were published in a statement on the Chinese Foreign Ministry`s website (www.mfa.gov.cn).
"(The Council`s) representation has been growing stronger daily since its establishment, and it has step-by-step become an important domestic political force," Yang said, adding that China was worried about the Libyan people`s suffering.
Winning international recognition could eventually help the rebels to secure access to frozen Libyan funds, and the right to spend money earned by exporting oil.
China is the only veto-wielding permanent member of the UN Security Council that has yet to call for Gaddafi to step down, after Russia joined Western countries last month in calling for him to leave power.
Beijing, never very close to Gaddafi, hosted Libya`s Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi this month. Courting the rebels has marked a policy adjustment for China, which generally avoids entangling itself in other nations` domestic affairs.
NATO and the rebels are hoping that Gaddafi`s diplomatic and economic isolation will eventually bring his government down.
Gaddafi`s forces were able to shell the rebel stronghold of Misrata on Tuesday, landing rockets in the center of the town for the first time in several weeks.
No one was reported hurt by that strike, but it undermined a relative sense of security among residents who believed that a siege on the city had been broken last month.
More rockets fell later in the sparsely-populated El-Araidat neighborhood near the port. Residents said no one was hurt and a Reuters reporter saw only several dead sheep lying in a field after the attack.
"Everyone is worried. We don`t know where to go anymore. Only when I die will I be safe," said Mohammed Mabrouk, who lives near one of two houses hit by the first rocket rounds in Misrata. Two more landed in open areas.
At least three explosions were heard in Tripoli on Wednesday morning and again in the afternoon but it was not clear where or what caused them.
In a sign of the increasing impact of the crisis on daily life, Gaddafi`s state media issued instructions that ordinary people should follow "to deal with the fuel shortage."
They called on people to use public transport instead of cars, avoid using air conditioning when driving and stick to 90-100 kph as the ideal speed. They also asked Libyans to be patient when queuing at petrol stations.
Exports of oil have ceased, depriving Gaddafi`s government of the funds it used during peacetime to provide the population with heavily subsidized food and fuel. Petrol queues in Gaddafi -held areas now stretch for miles.
Rebels have been trying to advance west toward the town of Zlitan, where Gaddafi`s soldiers are imposing a tight siege. Libyan television said on Wednesday that "dozens" of people were killed in Zlitan after NATO ships shelled the town.
The report could not be independently verified because foreign reporters have been prevented from entering Zlitan. NATO normally comments on its Libya operations the following day.
If the Libyan television report is confirmed, it could further complicate the mission of the NATO-led military alliance, whose credibility has been questioned after it admitted on Sunday killing civilians in a Tripoli air strike.
Gaddafi`s government says more than 700 civilians have died in NATO strikes. However, it has not shown evidence of such large numbers of civilian casualties, and NATO denies them.
A rebel spokesman called Mohammed told Reuters from Zlitan that NATO had been hitting government military targets in the town on an almost daily basis. He said Gaddafi`s soldiers used artillery positions in Zlitan to fire salvoes toward Misrata.
"We hear the sound of artillery fire every night," he said.