NEW YORK/MISRATA, Libya, June 30 (Reuters) - France has defended its move to airlift weapons to Libya's rebels, saying it did not break a U.N. arms embargo because they were needed to defend civilians under threat.
France on Wednesday became the first NATO country to openly acknowledge arming rebels seeking to topple Muammar Gaddafi, who has so far resisted a three-month-old bombing campaign that has strained alliance and rebel firepower.
The bombing is backed by a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing force to protect civilians, but Britain, France and the United States say they will not stop until Gaddafi falls.
Citing unnamed sources, Le Figaro newspaper said France had parachuted rocket launchers, assault rifles, machine guns and anti-tank missiles into the Western Mountains in early June.
A French military spokesman confirmed delivery of arms, prompting some U.N. diplomats to argue that such transfers without consent of the U.N. Security Council's Libya sanctions committee could violate the embargo.
"We decided to provide self-defensive weapons to the civilian populations because we consider that these populations were under threat," French Ambassador to the United Nations Gerard Araud told reporters.
"In exceptional circumstances, we cannot implement paragraph 9 when it's for protecting civilians," Araud said of a section of the U.N. Security Council resolution 1970 from February imposed a comprehensive arms embargo on Libya.
Resolution 1973 subsequently authorized U.N. member states "to take all necessary measures" to protect civilians in Libya. It also adds "notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970" on the embargo, opening up what some U.S. and European officials say is a loophole allowing them to arm rebels.
In Libya's Western Mountains, a rebel spokesman said he had no information about the arms. NATO said it was not involved in any transfers and France's allies reacted cautiously.
"It does raise quite a few issues, not least the United Nations resolution, although in some circumstances clearly that could be justified," British Minister for International Security Gerald Howarth told reporters.
"But it is very much a matter for France and no criticism of France (is) intended therein. But it's not something we shall be doing," added Howarth. Britain has given the rebels items such as body armor while stressing such aid was "non-lethal."
At an Africa Union summit in Equatorial Guinea, AU Commission chief Jean Ping said arms going into Libya could end up in the hands of al Qaeda allies in the region.
"Africa's concern is that weapons that are delivered to one side or another ... are already in the desert and will arm terrorists and fuel trafficking," Ping told reporters.
"A LITTLE BIT NAIVE"
As the NATO operation extends beyond 90 days, fissures have appeared in the coalition against Gaddafi, with Italy calling for a suspension to the bombing and U.S. officials complaining about the lack of European firepower.
The rebels' advances have been slow, although they say they have made considerable progress in the past week on the front nearest Tripoli. On Sunday rebels advanced from the mountains southwest of the capital to 80 km (50 miles) from the capital.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who has been criticized for not seeking approval from Congress for the mission, said he had carried it out in "exemplary fashion." His administration has argued that the U.S. role in the operation does not rise to the level of "hostilities" requiring congressional approval.
"We have engaged in a limited operation to help a lot of people against one of the worst tyrants in the world," he told a news conference, adding that Gaddafi was "pinned down and the noose is tightening around him."
Dutch Defense Minister Hans Hillen was more circumspect, warning NATO allies against "mission creep" and forecast more arguments about the campaign if it lasted beyond September.
"Libya is a very, very big country indeed. People who thought that merely by throwing some bombs it would not only help the people, but also convince Gaddafi that he could step down or alter his policy, were a little bit naive," he said.
No major moves on the ground were reported on Wednesday.
Rebels said explosions were heard at one of their main ammunition facilities near the airport outside their eastern stronghold Benghazi.
"It's not an accident. We don't know what happened yet. But we only have one enemy," said spokesman Mohammed Keesh.
Another spokesman said there had been no casualties so far.
NATO warships off the Libyan coast fired on government forces near the strategic town of Zlitan east of Tripoli, rebels said on Wednesday. Gaddafi's forces have so far blocked the rebels at Zlitan, preventing them from advancing on Tripoli.
"Last night, NATO struck from the sea at Gaddafi's forces positioned in the coastal area," a rebel spokesman inside Zlitan, who identified himself as Mabrouk, told Reuters.
NATO said it hit one multiple rocket launcher, one mortar, one armed vehicle, one command-and-control facility in the vicinity of Zlitan, which is about 140 km (90 miles) east of Tripoli and lies between the capital and rebel-held Misrata.
It said NATO vessels had fired illumination rounds over Zlitan for reconnaissance, without further giving details.
Libyan state television said 15 people were killed when NATO air strikes hit a vegetable market on Tuesday in the town of Tawergha, south of Misrata, and accused the alliance of hitting civilian targets again on Wednesday.
A NATO spokesman said the alliance had hit "a military facility with military vehicles inside" in the Tawergha area on Wednesday. The alliance was unable to confirm reports of civilian casualties but was looking into them.
Gaddafi's government says NATO bombing has killed more than 700 civilians, although it has not presented evidence of such large numbers of civilian deaths and NATO denies them.
An official with the rebel leadership said if it came to power it would review all contracts signed under Gaddafi. Mahmoud Shammam, a spokesman for the rebel National Transitional Council, told reporters in Paris the council would nullify contracts if it discovered evidence of corruption.
Gaddafi's officials say the NATO campaign is an act of colonial aggression aimed at stealing Libya's oil. They also dismiss International Criminal Court arrest warrants against Gaddafi and his son for crimes against humanity, saying the court is a tool of the West.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers; Lutfi Abu-Aun in Tripoli; John Irish and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, David Brunnstrom in Brussels; Anis Mili in Arrujban, Libya; Keith Weir in London; Joseph Nasr in Berlin; Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations and David Lewis in Malabo; Writing by Mark John; Editing by Angus MacSwan)