Benghazi: The United States on Monday called on Muammar Gaddafi to leave Libya as Washington's most senior envoy to date held talks in the rebel capital in another boost to forces fighting to oust the veteran leader.
Washington's call came a day after the European Union opened an office in the rebel bastion of Benghazi to show its "long term" support to the rebels who took their diplomatic offensive to NATO's sole Muslim member Turkey.
"The United States remains committed to protecting Libyan civilians and believes that Gaddafi must leave power and Libya," said a statement released by the US representative's office to the rebels' National Transitional Council.
"The Libyan people, like people everywhere, have the right to determine their own future and the United States will continue to support them and to work with the NTC in this endeavour," it said.
The statement came as the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffery Feltman, was in Benghazi for talks with the rebel leadership in a three-day visit.
"Feltman's visit is another signal of the US's support for the NTC, a legitimate and credible interlocutor for the Libyan people," said the statement.
Britain, France, Gambia, Italy and Qatar have already recognised the rebel council as their sole interlocutor in Libya.
Washington's latest move came a day after the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, opened an EU office in Benghazi.
The European bloc's foreign ministers were meeting in Brussels on Monday to look at ways forward in Libya as divisions emerge over an exit strategy.
The ministers were expected to discuss how to get the rebels and Gaddafi loyalists to agree to a ceasefire that would include a pullback by regime forces in order to clear the way for a political dialogue.
"Member states currently are less united in the belief that Gaddafi must go before a ceasefire or political talks can begin," one diplomat said. "But the rebel leadership will not budge on this point."
The EU also stepped up pressure against Gaddafi directly, widening sanctions on his regime.
An EU assets freeze and travel ban against Gaddafi loyalists and firms suspected of propping up the regime was extended to a member of the Libyan leader's inner circle and a Libyan airline, an EU diplomat said, without immediately disclosing details of those targeted.
In Ankara, the head of the rebel council, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, met Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday to discuss the situation in Libya, a diplomat said.
"The parties should proceed to an exchange of views on the Libyan crisis and search for ways to deepen their relations," the Turkish diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"Mr Abdul Jalil will also discuss ways to improve coordination and cooperation with Turkey for humanitarian aid to his country," the diplomat added.
Jalil was also to meet President Abdullah Gul and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu during his two-day visit, the Turkish foreign ministry said.
The meetings mark the highest-level contact so far between Turkey and the rebels.
Ankara has toughened its tone in recent weeks after initially criticising the US-led air strikes on Libya launched on March 19 and insisting on a limited combat role for NATO once the alliance took over command.
Earlier this month, Erdogan urged Gaddafi to "immediately" cede power and leave Libya.
In Moscow, a rebel representative was due to hold talks with Foreign Minister Minister Sergei Lavrov a week after the top Russia diplomat met emissaries of Gaddafi.
In March, Russia abstained from the UN Security Council resolution on Libya that essentially authorised military action.
But the Kremlin has since accused the West of exceeding the UN mandate and getting entangled in a full-blown military operation in Libya.
On the ground, there was little movement in the battle lines.
Rebel military spokesman Ahmed Omar Bani said the front line between the rebel-held east and the mainly government-held west remained between the strategic crossroads town of Ajdabiya and the oil refinery town of Brega.
"In Ajdabiya, our forces are at 40 kilometres (25 miles) on the road to Brega," he said, an advance of some 20 kilometres on their positions a few days ago. "We plan to go to Brega in a few days."
Bani said rebel fighters who earlier this month broke the loyalist siege of Libya's third-largest city Misrata -- the rebels' most significant bastion in the west -- had pushed on towards Zliten, the next town along the coast road towards Tripoli.
"Gaddafi forces are outside Zliten but are facing rebels on the eastern outskirts."
Bani spoke of a desperate situation in the other rebel-held enclave in the west -- the mainly Berber hilltowns southwest of the capital.
"In the Nafusa mountains, the situation is terrible. There is no water, no food supplies. We can't help them for the moment, and that is for the last 47 days," he said.
First Published: Monday, May 23, 2011, 20:09