West, Arab nations, AU say Gaddafi must go

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A group of Western powers and Middle Eastern states on Thursday called for the first time for Muammar Gaddafi to step aside, but Nato countries squabbled publicly over stepping up air strikes to help topple the Libyan leader.

In a victory for Britain and France, which are leading the air campaign in Libya and are pushing for an unequivocal call for regime change, the “contact group” of European and Middle Eastern nations, plus the United Nations, the Arab League and the African Union, said Gaddafi must go.

“Gaddafi and his regime has lost all legitimacy and he must leave power allowing the Libyan people to determine their future,” a final statement obtained by Reuters said. It also said the rebels’ national council, “in contrast with the current regime . . . is a legitimate interlocutor, representing the aspirations of the Libyan people”.

The wording was much tougher than at a conference two weeks ago and gave stronger backing to insurgents fighting to end Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.

Participants would work on a financial mechanism to help rebels run the eastern region they control.

The group also agreed to provide “material support” for the rebels.

Although the statement did not give details, diplomats said some nations might interpret this as supplying arms, a key request of the outgunned insurgents.

Material support could include “all the other needs, including defence equipment”, said Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani of Qatar, a leading Arab supporter of the month-old revolt inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

A French presidential source said Paris had no plans to arm the rebels, although it would not oppose other countries if they decide to do so.

President Nicolas Sarkozy discussed Libya with visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Britain said on Wednesday it would supply 1 000 sets of body armour from surplus British defence supplies to Libyan rebels, on top of the 100 satellite phones already sent.

The rebels said they were in talks with “friendly” countries to obtain arms: “I don’t think there will be a problem getting weapons,” national council spokesman Abdel Hafiz Ghoga told reporters in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

At Ajdabiyah on the eastern front, rebels said they were exchanging rocket fire with Gaddafi’s forces and reported more heavy fighting in Misrata, their main bastion in western Libya, and said they were making progress against forces besieging the city, pushing them back 10km in one area.

It was not possible to verify the claim.

A rebel sympathiser in Misrata named Ghassan said rebels had pushed back government forces on its central Tripoli Street.

“After they withdrew they fired artillery at the Al-Bira neighbourhood, which lies in the centre near Tripoli Street,” he said.

“We haven’t been able to reach the hospital to check whether there were any people killed or injured.”

A rebel spokesman called Abdelrahman said fighters had attacked pro-Gaddafi forces on a hill west of Zintan, the rebels’ other redoubt in the west.

“The main problem in Zintan is fuel shortages. There are also water shortages and electricity is not always available.”

Libyan television said Nato planes had bombed Misrata and Gaddafi’s birthplace of Sirte. A Nato official said there were no strikes in either city, but the alliance had hit anti-aircraft weapons about 24km south of Misrata.

The World Food Programme said Libya was facing a humanitarian crisis and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Doha meeting that up to 3,6 million people, or more than half the population, could need assistance.