BENGHAZI // The European Union established formal diplomatic contact yesterday with the opposition seeking to topple Colonel Muammar Qaddafi by opening an office in Benghazi and promised support for a democratic Libya.
It was part of growing international recognition of the rebels' political leadership in Benghazi.
A number of other countries - including France, Italy, Qatar and the West African nation of Gambia -have already recognised the rebels, while the United States and other countries have sent envoys to open talks.
The EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, arrived yesterday to open the office and promised support "long into the future" for a democratic Libya.
"I have seen the vision of the Libyan people today all around. I saw the posters as I came from the airport with the words 'We have a dream'," she said after meeting with Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, chairman of the rebels' civilian National Transitional Council.
In a statement, she said she had discussed European support in border management, security reform, economy, health, education and in building civil society.
Baroness Ashton did not offer what the rebels say they need most - heavy weapons to match the arsenal of Colonel Qaddafi, Libya's leader of more than 40 years.
Col Qaddafi has responded to the uprising that began in mid-February by unleashing his military and militias against the rebels, who have been aided by Nato bombing aimed at maintaining a no-fly zone and at keeping Colonel Qaddafi from attacking civilians.
The two sides have been reduced to a stalemate in recent weeks, with the rebels complaining they cannot defeat Col Qaddafi's better-equipped army. But no country has agreed to send arms.
Rebel forces were able to hold off an advance yesterday by Colonel Qaddafi's forces towards a rebel-held border crossing with Tunisia, a resident of the area said.
The Wazin crossing is an essential lifeline for rebels in Libya's western mountains, allowing them to get food and medical supplies. It has been under frequent attack for weeks, said the resident, who gave only his last name, Jaber, because he feared retribution from Colonel Qaddafi's troops.
He said the government troops attacked rebel forces from on top of a nearby mountain before dawn. Two hours of clashes killed one rebel fighter and 15 government troops, he said.
Most EU nations have frozen their relations with Colonel Qaddafi's government and withdrawn their diplomats. Hungary, which holds the bloc's rotating presidency, is the only member nation still maintaining a diplomatic mission in Tripoli.
The opening of the diplomatic office came as Nato widened its campaign to weaken Colonel Qaddafi's regime with air strikes on desert command centres and sea patrols to intercept ships.
Nato yesterday said in Brussels that its aircraft flew 49 missions on Saturday. They hit a command-and-control facility near Tripoli, as well as ammunition dumps, air defence radars, and a tank and lorry near a rebel-held town in the mountains south of Tripoli.
Nato raids yesterday again targeted the sprawling, heavily fortified Qaddafi compound in the capital, said the government spokesman Ibrahim Uthman.
Earlier he said a Nato strike hit the port but later said that information was incorrect. Mr Uthman said the strike wounded five people. He said it was aimed at an old administrative building in the Qaddafi compound. Reporters, who cannot move about freely in Tripoli and must be accompanied by government minders, were not taken to see the compound.
Meanwhile, there were signs of growing public anger over fuel shortages in government-held territory.
In Zawiya on Saturday, crowds apparently angered by dwindling fuel supplies tried to stab reporters in a minibus on a state-supervised trip.
The journalists, a Chinese news correspondent and two Britons, a BBC technician and a Reuters video producer, were not harmed.
The assailants also attacked the government official accompanying the reporters, once unimaginable in Libya and a sign of the growing frustrations of residents struggling to cope with rising food prices and gasoline shortages.
In overnight fighting south-west of Benghazi, two rebels were killed and 12 wounded in a firefight with Qaddafi forces at New Brega, a residential area outside Brega.