, DOHA, Apr 13 – World powers rallied behind Libyan rebels as they appeared on a global stage for the first time Wednesday, with Italy and Qatar saying they need weapons to defend themselves and Britain pressing for urgent regional aid.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, warned at the Libya contact group meeting in Doha that as many as 3.6 million people, or more than half of Libya\’s population, could need humanitarian assistance.
Ban also urged the international community to "speak with one voice" on Libya, as a rift appeared to be opening between EU partners, with Belgium expressing opposition to arming the rebels and Germany insisting there could be "no military solution."
"The discussion about arming the rebels is definitely on the table … to defend themselves," Italy\’s Maurizio Massari said ahead of the Doha meeting.
"The UN resolution … does not forbid arming" the rebels fighting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi\’s forces, he told reporters, while adding that a decision was unlikely to be taken at the meeting in the Qatari capital.
"We need to provide the rebels all possible defensive means," he said, singling out communication and intelligence equipment.
Qatar\’s crown prince, also addressing the gathering of some 20 countries and international organisations, said the Libyan people must be supplied with the means to defend themselves.
"The main aim of our meeting is to help the Libyan people decide their own fate… and to help the Libyan people defend themselves so they can decide on their future," said Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
However, Belgian Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere said: "The UN resolution speaks about protecting civilians, not arming them."
And German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said: "We will not see a military solution" in Libya, but stressed that Libyan leader Moamer Gaddafi had to step down. "Germany is ready to support humanitarian action for the people of Libya."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague was upbeat about the meeting and said it would "strengthen" the pressure on Gaddafi to step down.
"It is impossible for anyone to see a viable future for Libya with Colonel Gaddafi in power," Hague told reporters ahead of the meeting.
"Pressure for Gaddafi to go will increase at the meeting today. It will strengthen, not weaken," he said.
Hague also suggested that the meeting would look at setting up funding streams from Gulf states to help maintain services in the rebel-held east.
"I hope we can agree to set up a temporary financial mechanism in the region for the benefit of the Interim National Council-controlled areas of Libya," he said, referring to the rebels\’ shadow government.
Hague said Britain also hoped the meeting would agree "how best to plan the stabilisation" of Libya.
"I hope we will agree to endorse the principles set out by the Interim National Council for a political process leading to a democratic Libya," he said.
"We should also move forward quickly to ensure that nations wishing to support the Interim National Council in meeting its public sector tasks do so in a transparent manner," Hague added.
Members of the Transitional National Council were to address the contact group later Wednesday as an alternative voice for Libya\’s people.
In London on March 29, the TNC was not permitted to attend the plenary session of an international ministerial conference on the crisis, although its envoys held bilateral talks with several world powers on the sidelines.
Speaking to AFP on the sidelines of Wednesday\’s meeting, the rebels\’ foreign relations chief Ali al-Essawi called for increased air strikes by NATO on Gaddafi\’s tanks and missile sites.
"Civilians are not sufficiently protected," he said.
Essawi also said Libyan rebels were willing to hold talks with "any defector" from Gaddafi\’s regime, including former foreign minister Mussa Kussa.
"We would welcome to speak to anybody who defects or wants to defect, to help them. We would speak to anybody who would give information to help the Libyans in this situation," he said.
France said it will push NATO allies at a meeting on Thursday to contribute more warplanes to the bombing mission in Libya and speed up the air strikes.
Only six out of NATO\’s 28 members are conducting air strikes, while French and British warplanes are carrying out half the offensive missions, the official said.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who has complained that NATO was not doing enough in Libya, will press his case at a meeting of alliance chief diplomats in Berlin on Thursday and Friday, the official said.
UN chief Ban painted a bleak picture of the impact of the fighting in Libya, which erupted when Gaddafi\’s forces began violently suppressing a popular uprising that began on February 15 against his four-decade iron-clad rule.
"Under our worst-case scenario, as many as 3.6 million people could eventually require humanitarian assistance" in Libya, which has a population of six million, Ban told delegates before the session went behind closed doors.
"The humanitarian situation continues to worsen," he said.
"Approximately 490,000 people – almost half a million people – have left the country since the crisis began," Ban said, quoting figures from the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.
A French government-chartered plane carrying 10 tonnes of medical supplies landed on Wednesday in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, an AFP correspondent said.
The plane, an Airbus A340, landed at Benghazi airport also carrying members of non-governmental organisations, including surgeons and other medical staff.
It was the first such French aid plane to reach the rebel stronghold.
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