Paris: France promised Libyan rebels on Wednesday it would intensify air strikes on Muammar Gaddafi's forces and send military liaison officers to help them as fighting raged in the besieged city of Misrata.
Rebels said they fought pro-government troops for control of a main thoroughfare in the port city that is the insurgents' last stronghold in the west of the country. Eight people had been killed the previous day, mostly civilians.
In Paris, President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged stronger military action at his first meeting with the leader of the opposition Libyan National Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the Elysee presidential office said in a statement.
"We are indeed going to intensify the attacks and respond to this request from the national transition council," it said, quoting Sarkozy as telling Abdel Jalil: "We will help you."
He did not say how NATO-led forces planned to break a stalemate on the ground after the United States and some European allies declined last week to join ground strikes.
Vice President Joe Biden said in an interview with the Financial Times that American strike aircraft were not needed to achieve the alliance's mission in Libya.
"If the Lord Almighty extricated the U.S. out of NATO and dropped it on the planet of Mars so we were no longer participating, it is bizarre to suggest that NATO and the rest of the world lacks the capacity to deal with Libya -- it does not," he was quoted as saying.
"Occasionally other countries lack the will, but this is not about capacity," Biden said.
"GOOD FOR MORALE"
Abdel Jalil told reporters he had invited Sarkozy to pay a visit to the rebel-held eastern city of Benghazi to demonstrate France's support for ending Gaddafi's 41-year rule.
"I think that would be extremely important for the morale of the revolution," he said. France did not say if the president had accepted.
Abdel Jalil also said the opposition, little known to the world until an uprising against Gaddafi began in mid-February, was committed to building a democracy in Libya where the head of state would come to power "by the ballot box, not atop a tank."
Hundreds of people are believed to have been killed in Misrata, where aid groups say the humanitarian situation is worsening with a lack of food and medical supplies.
The rebels say forces loyal to Gaddafi have been bombarding the city heavily over the last week, although the situation appeared calmer on Wednesday morning.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said the Libyan government's reported use of cluster munitions and heavy weapons in Misrata may amount to a war crime under international law.
The government denies it is attacking civilians in Misrata.
"The number of martyrs for yesterday is eight, mostly civilians. More than 20 people were also wounded. Snipers remain the main threat to civilians and revolutionaries (rebels)," Abdelsalam, an insurgent spokesman, told Reuters by phone.
Another rebel representative, Reda, who like Abdelsalam only gave his first name, said: "Fighting is still going on in Tripoli Street," a main street that leads to the center from Misrata's southern outskirts.
Libyan state television said on Wednesday that NATO warplanes had hit telecommunication and broadcasting infrastructure in several cities. It did not say when the attacks took place of what damage was caused.
Western officials say NATO is attacking only military targets consistent with the alliance's U.N. mandate to impose a no-fly zone and protect civilians from Gaddafi's forces.
France's decision to send up to 10 military advisers to work with the rebels came a day after Britain, the other main leader of the coalition, announced a similar move.
Government spokesman Francois Baroin stressed France had no intention of sending troops into Libya, where Western powers are struggling to break a deadlock in a two-month-old conflict.
"A small number of liaison officers (will be placed) with the National Transition Council in order to organize the protection of the civilian population," he told a news briefing.
The French officers are expected to advise rebel leaders on how to organize their ragtag forces, struggling against Gaddafi's better-armed and better-trained army. They will also liaise with NATO on the location of rebels and Gaddafi's troops.
Asked whether the dispatch of liaison officers amounted to mission creep, French military analyst Jean-Dominique Merchet said it was only a small team and they would not be training fighters but advising their senior officers.
"It's about putting a bit of organization into the rebel forces. It's the French and the British doing this, it's clear that NATO is not very keen, nor the Americans," Merchet said.
Independent defense analyst Paul Beaver said the decision to send military advisers was stretching the UN resolution.
"But I think without it the rebels are going to be so disorganized that we will have a stalemate in what is almost a civil war now."
"I don't believe it's mission creep. People are quoting the Vietnam war but that's quite different. These guys are not there to go and fight."
But British member of parliament Graham Allen disagreed, saying the mission had already gone beyond the humanitarian position used to justify the original intervention.
"It is already clearly about regime change. As well has entering the conflict without being clear on its boundaries, the government is also unclear about any exit strategy," he said.
Italy, which had close ties to Gaddafi before the uprising, said Western forces may need to step up intervention.
Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa told reporters in Rome that Gaddafi would only leave power if he were forced. Italy would consider sending 10 military trainers to help rebel forces, he said.
First Published: Thursday, April 21, 2011, 00:49