* France and Italy disagree on ceasefire
* China shifts ground, calls rebels "dialogue partner"
* Gaddafi accuses NATO of murdering civilians
By Matt Robinson
MISRATA, Libya, June 23 A split has opened within
the NATO-led air campaign against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi,
with France and Britain rejecting an Italian call for a halt to
military action to allow aid access.
China also signalled a shift in its stance on the conflict,
describing as a "dialogue partner" the rebels who, four months
into the uprising, are making only slow gains in their effort to
reach the capital Tripoli and topple Gaddafi.
Rebels said NATO air strikes hit government weapons depots
south of the rebel-held western mountain town of Zintan, while
an unverified Libyan TV report said "dozens" of people were
killed in a separate NATO attack on the town of Zlitan.
NATO's first acknowledgment this weekend that it may have
caused civilian casualties risks hurting support for a mission
that secured a U.N. mandate despite deep misgivings from states
in the Arab world, Europe and beyond.
Gaddafi branded NATO states as "murderers" in an audio
speech broadcast late on Wednesday, and the deaths have prompted
some in the alliance itself to question its tactics.
"The need to look for a ceasefire has become more pressing,"
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told parliament.
"As well as the ceasefire, which is the first stage towards
a political negotiation, a humanitarian stop to military action
is fundamental to allow immediate humanitarian aid."
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An Italian Foreign Ministry spokesman later clarified that
Rome was not making a specific proposal and was interested in
any ideas to reduce civilian casualties. But his comments got
short shrift from NATO allies.
"We have to intensify the pressure on Gaddafi. Any pause in
operations would risk allowing him to gain time and reorganise
himself," said French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero.
Britain, which along with France was one of the first
countries to put its weight behind the rebellion, agreed.
"Our position is that this is in Gaddafi's hands. He has
called several ceasefires and none of them have resulted in
ceasefires," Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman said.
"The right approach at the present time is to increase the
pressure on Gaddafi."
TIME OF THE ESSENCE
A defiant Gaddafi accused NATO states of being murderers of
innocent civilians and vowed revenge.
"One day we will respond to you likewise and your homes will
be legitimate targets," he said in an audio speech on state TV.
The date on the screen was June 22 but Gaddafi referred to a
June 19 strike on a house in Tripoli after which NATO regretted
civilian casualties as "yesterday's crime", suggesting he was
speaking on June 20 and raising questions over his location.
Time is now a crucial factor for both sides in the conflict,
with unity in the NATO-led coalition likely to come under more
strain and Gaddafi having to deal with the economic impact of
In a sign of the increasing impact of the crisis on daily
life, Libyan state media issued instructions that ordinary
people should follow "to deal with the fuel shortage".
They called on people to use public transport instead of
cars, avoid using air conditioning when driving and stick to
90-100 kph (55-63 mph) as the ideal speed. They also asked
Libyans to be patient when queueing at petrol stations.
CHINA ACKNOWLEDGES REBEL CHIEF
The rebel National Transitional Council got a further boost
on Wednesday when China, the only veto-wielding member of the
U.N. Security Council not to have urged Gaddafi to stand down,
hosted its diplomatic chief for talks in Beijing.
"China sees you as an important dialogue partner," Chinese
Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told Mahmoud Jibril, according to
comments published on the Chinese Foreign Ministry's website
The statement, however, stopped short of aligning China with
the 19 countries which have recognised the Council as the
legitimate representative of the Libyan people.
Action on the ground was inconclusive. At least three
explosions were heard in Tripoli in the morning and again in the
afternoon but it was not clear what had caused them.
(Additional reporting by Roberto Landucci in Rome, John Irish
in Paris, Keith Weir in London, Nick Carey in Tripoli, Michael
Martina and Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Hamid Ould Ahmed in
Algiers, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Joseph Nasr in Berlin and
Ali Abdelatti in Cairo; Writing by Mark John; Editing by
Alistair Lyon and Elizabeth Fullerton)