Russian envoy meets Libya rebels as NATO pounds Tripoli

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President Dmitry Medvedev's envoy Mikhail Margelov met Libyan rebel leaders on Tuesday in the first trip by a top Russian official to their stronghold, as NATO warplanes pounded the capital.

An AFP correspondent in Tripoli heard repeated loud explosions emanating from the Bab Al-Aziziya district where veteran leader Moamer Kadhafi has his base, in one of the heaviest daytime bombardments since the NATO-led air war began in mid-March.

At a meeting of the International Labour Organisation in Geneva, Libya Labour Minister Al-Amin Manfur announced that he was changing sides in the latest high-level defection to hit Kadhafi's regime.

In the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, Libya's second city, Margelov said Russia opposed any escalation of the conflict but was prepared to provide financial support to the rebels.

"We have come to Benghazi to facilitate dialogue between the two camps," Margelov told reporters, confirming Russia's wish to mediate between the rebels and Kadhafi's regime.

"Russia is in a unique position because it already has an ambassador in Tripoli and now we are meeting with the rebel leadership today," he said.

Margelov, Medvedev's Africa envoy, met rebel leaders including Mustafa Abdul Jalil, head of the National Transitional Council that controls eastern Libya.

After the talks, he said: "Air strikes don't solve problems. We are in favour of a political solution, not a military escalation.

"We are ready to help the Libyan people both politically and economically."

The rebels said they were ready to receive Russian aid "tomorrow" but stressed that they would not enter any negotiations on ending the Libyan conflict until Kadhafi stepped down.

"The only message that he can deliver to Kadhafi as far as the rebellion is concerned is 'Leave'," rebel spokesman Mahmoud Shammam said.

Margelov said he "may eventually travel to Tripoli" but gave no date for any trip.

Moscow has expressed alarm as NATO's air campaign to enforce a UN-mandated no-fly zone to protect civilians entered a new phase with the deployment of British and French attack helicopters over the weekend.

An AFP correspondent heard eight loud explosions from the area around Kadhafi's compound in the Libyan capital late morning followed by more than a dozen in the early afternoon.

A plume of smoke rose over barracks in the complex which was "once again targeted by NATO" strikes, government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim told journalists.

He added there had been "casualties."

Beijing meanwhile said that Chinese diplomats had arrived in Benghazi to meet with members of the opposition.

The diplomats' mission was "to gain an understanding of the humanitarian situation and the situation for Chinese investing entities", a foreign ministry statement said.

Russia and China, both permanent Security Council members, abstained from the UN Security Council vote in March that gave the go-ahead for international military action against Kadhafi's regime.

And as foreign powers beat a path to the rebels' door, Spain said Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez will travel to Benghazi for a meeting with the rebels on Wednesday.

In Vienna, an informed source told AFP that Kadhafi will be represented at this week's meeting of the OPEC oil cartel by Omran Abukraa, ex-head of the national electricity authority.

Last month, Libya's previous acting oil minister Shukri Ghanem resigned and left Libya to join the uprising.

Abukraa, a Kadhafi loyalist, will lead the Libyan delegation at a regular output meeting of oil ministers from the 12-nation Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the source said.

Fellow North African nation Mauritania added its voice to the chorus of countries demanding that Kadhafi quit.

"Kadhafi can no longer lead Libya. His departure has become necessary," President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz told AFP in an interview.

The European Union announced that it would extend a freeze on the assets of Kadhafi's regime to six government-controlled port authorities from Wednesday.

The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees warned that an aid crisis appeared to be looming in Libya and more international relief may soon be needed.

"Despite the fact that warehouses are currently well stocked with basic food items, it is apparent that the combined impact of protracted conflict and sanctions are eroding the government's ability to effectively deliver assistance," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said.

He said a UN mission which visited Libya last week had concluded that "if this situation continues, international aid is likely to be needed in a matter of weeks."

He said UNHCR staff in Tripoli had reported queues at petrol stations as long as 8.2 kilometres (five miles) and that 49,000 people were estimated to have been displaced in the capital and in the Zlitan region further east.

© 2011 AFP

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