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Turkey's foreign minister meets Libyan rebels

Ahmet Davutoglu's visit to Benghazi is the most powerful signal yet that Turkey is throwing its weight behind the opposition to Qaddafi.

BENGHAZI // Turkey's foreign minister visited the rebel capital yesterday in a show of diplomatic support for the opposition trying to overthrow Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.

Ahmet Davutoglu was to meet the rebel leader, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, in Benghazi later in the day.

Turkey has vast trade interests in Libya and longtime ties with the Qaddafi regime. The Turkish foreign minister's visit is the most powerful signal yet that Turkey is throwing its weight behind the opposition.

Mr Davutoglu's visit came as Mr Abdel Jalil said in an interview yesterday that Colonel Qaddafi was welcome to retire on Libyan soil as long as he resigns formally and agrees to international supervision of his movements.

The rebels and their western allies have rejected any solution to the conflict that does not include Colonel Qaddafi's resignation, saying he must quit before any peace talks can begin.

Colonel Qaddafi has fiercely resisted all international calls on him to go, vowing to fight to the end.

Mr Abdel Jalil, Colonel Qaddafi's former justice minister, said he made the proposal about a month ago through the United Nations but had yet to receive any response from Tripoli.

Mr Davutoglu's visit also came amid calls from Libyan rebels for more weapons and funding. The foreign minister has not commented on a recent French arms shipment to the opposition.

Buoyed by that arms shipment and intensified Nato air strikes on the regime's front-line armour, the rebel army said it was poised for an offensive that could put it within striking distance of Tripoli.

The announcement late on Saturday came as a prolonged deadlock on the battlefield prompted mounting pressure from countries outside the Nato-led coalition for a negotiated solution to a conflict that has dragged on for four and a half months.

South Africa, which has taken a lead role in mediation efforts, said the South African president, Jacob Zuma, would hold talks in Moscow today with representatives of the International Contact Group on Libya as well as Russian officials.

Rebel fighters were readying an advance out of their hilltop enclave in the Nafusa Mountains, south-west of Tripoli, in the next 48 hours in a bid to recapture territory in the plains on the road to the capital, said the spokesman, Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani.

"In the next two days the (revolutionaries) will come up with answers, things will change on the front line," he said.

The rebels had pulled back last week from around the plains town of Bir al-Ghanam, some 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Tripoli, in the face of loyalist bombardment.

* With reporting by Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse

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