MISRATA Western and Arab nations meet in Abu Dhabi on Thursday to focus on what one U.S. official called the "end-game" for Libya's Muammar Gaddafi as NATO once again stepped up the intensity of its air raids on Tripoli.
NATO air strikes resumed in Tripoli on Wednesday night after a lull that followed the heaviest day of bombings since March. Thousands of Gaddafi troops advanced on Misrata on Wednesday, shelling it from three sides and killing at least 12 rebels.
Ministers from the so-called Libya contact group, including the United States, France and Britain, as well as Arab allies Qatar, Kuwait and Jordan, agreed in May to set up a fund to help the rebels in the civil war.
They are expected to firm up this commitment in the United Arab Emirates capital and press the rebels to give a detailed plan on how they would run the country if Gaddafi stood down as leader of the oil producing North African desert state.
"The international community is beginning to talk about what could constitute end-game to this," one senior U.S. official told reporters aboard U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's plane which landed in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday night.
"That would obviously include some kind of ceasefire arrangement and some kind of political process ... and of course the question of Gaddafi and perhaps his family is also a key part of that," the U.S. official said.
Both Libya's rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) and its Western allies have rejected Libyan government ceasefire offers that do not include Gaddafi's departure, saying he and his family must relinquish power before any talks can begin.
The U.S. official said there have been general discussions about what might happen to Gaddafi but nothing specific on "where he should go, or whether he should remain in Libya for that matter."
U.S. officials on Wednesday announced delivery of the TNC's first U.S. oil sale, part of a broader strategy they hope will get money flowing to the cash starved group.
U.S. oil refiner Tesoro announced in May it had purchased the 1.2 million barrel cargo, which U.S. officials said was due to arrive in Hawaii on Wednesday aboard a tanker chartered by Swiss oil trader Vitol.
"PRESSURE WILL INCREASE"
British Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt, who will be at the Abu Dhabi talks, said the group would be briefed by the International Stabilisation Response Team which is helping the rebel council plan for post-conflict rebuilding.
"The contact group will also reiterate the unequivocal message ... that Gaddafi, his family and his regime have lost all legitimacy and must go so that the Libyan people can determine their own future," Burt said.
"Until Gaddafi does so, the pressure will increase across the board: economically, politically and militarily."
NATO defense ministers met in Brussels on Wednesday, but there were few signs of willingness to intensify their Libya mission, which after four months has failed to oust Gaddafi.
The alliance says the bombing aims to protect civilians from the Libyan leader's military, which crushed popular protests against his rule in February, leaving many dead. The conflict has now become a civil war.
Gaddafi says the rebels are a minority of Islamist militants and the NATO campaign is an attempt to grab Libya's oil.
On the battlefront, forces loyal to Gaddafi were staging a big push on Misrata. "He has sent thousands of troops from all sides and they are trying to enter the city. They are still outside, though, " rebel spokesman Hassan al-Misrati told Reuters from inside the besieged town.
Another rebel spokesman in Misrata, called Mohammed, told Reuters late on Wednesday they were still in control of the city despite the assault.
Spain joined other Western and Arab governments in recognizing the Benghazi-based council as the sole representative of the Libyan people.
Gaddafi troops and the rebels have been deadlocked for weeks, with neither side able to hold territory on a road between Ajdabiyah in the east, which Gaddafi forces shelled on Monday, and the Gaddafi-held oil town of Brega further west.
Rebels control the east of Libya, the western city of Misrata and the range of western mountains near the border with Tunisia. They have been unable to advance on the capital against Gaddafi's better-equipped forces.
(Additional reporting by Peter Graff in Tripoli, Adrian Croft in London and Andrew Quinn in Abu Dhabi; writing by John Irish, editing by Peter Millership)