LONDON An influential Libyan scholar urged world powers on Friday to recognize the rebel National Libyan Council, supply it with weapons and impose a no-fly zone to ground Muammar Gaddafi's warplanes.
Sheikh Ali al-Salabi, one of Libya's most prominent Islamic scholars, also asked Arab leaders meeting in Cairo on Saturday to "help the Libyan people regain their stolen freedoms."
"The Libyan people went onto the streets in peaceful and civilized demonstrations to ask Gaddafi the dictator to step down after 42 years in power. These 42 years were black and dark years for the Libyan people," al-Salabi told Reuters in a telephone interview from Qatar.
"The Libyans want Gaddafi, his sons and his miserable regime out. The Libyans want the international community to recognize the transitional council and to support it with arms, food and medicine to redress the balance and protect the people from the onslaught by Gaddafi's forces," he said.
Gaddafi's forces stepped up their counter-offensive on Friday to retake ground from insurgents. Government forces appear to have regained the momentum in the three-week old conflict and if their advance continues it could overtake sluggish international efforts to halt Gaddafi.
"Gaddafi today and yesterday used planes, tanks, artillery and warships to attack people who don't have equal military capability and equipment. Imposing a no-fly zone is a demand by the council," al-Salabi said.
He said Islamist scholars and groups backed the council, based in the traditional Libyan opposition bastion of Benghazi and headed by ex-Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil.
The council has made clear it does not want foreign troops on Libyan soil but has urged world powers to impose a no-fly zone to ground Gaddafi's warplanes.
Al-Salabi sought to allay Western concerns about the Islamist groups in a post-Gaddafi era, saying Libyan Islamists did not believe in al Qaeda's ideology and did not want to establish an Islamic state.
"All these accusations by the Libyan regime that these young men are linked to al Qaeda are lies. I was supervising the dialogue with these young men. They want a modern civic state with an independent judiciary, the rule of law and government of institutions with a new constitution agreed on by all Libyans."
Al-Salabi acted as mediator in negotiations between Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), which represented the greatest challenge to Gaddafi's regime in the 1990s.
The LIFG waged an insurgency in the east of the country and made several failed attempts to assassinate Gaddafi.
The dialogue led to the release of some 700 Islamist activists over the past three years as part of an attempt by Gaddafi's son to foster reconciliation with opposition groups and allay Western concerns about human rights violations.
Al-Salabi said Libyans from all walks of life -- secularists and Islamists -- were all in agreement about the overthrow of Gaddafi and wanted a pluralistic, civic society after him.
Al-Salabi said Gaddafi tore apart the fabric of Libyan society and destroyed its institutions.
"There was massive repression. Gaddafi's regime killed 1,200 prisoners at Abu Salim prison within three hours. He displaced Libyans in their thousands and arrested thousands. He seized the wealth or people and expropriated their land and property."
He said Gaddafi, his sons and cronies had got their hands on the country's oil wealth while one-third of Libyans lived in poverty and 30 percent of its youth were unemployed.
"Libyans lived in poverty, humiliation and under repression. The minimum human rights are denied to the Libyans. Gaddafi treats his own people as animals. Animal rights in Europe are better than the rights of humans in Libya."
(Editing by Giles Elgood)