BEIJING (Reuters) - China on Thursday urged nations to obey U.N. rules about arms transfers to Libya, but stopped short of openly criticizing France after it became the first NATO country to admit arming rebels fighting Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Paris said on Wednesday it had sent weapons to Libya’s rebels forces, the first government engaged in the bombing campaign against Gaddafi to publicly acknowledge such a step.
The legality of France’s move could be challenged because of a United Nations-mandated arms embargo on Libya. U.N. diplomats have said arms transfers without the prior consent of a U.N. Security Council committee could violate the embargo.
The issue will also be another test of China’s efforts to straddle forces contending over the future of Libya, and for now at least China did not publicly criticize France, a step that could also anger Libyan rebels who Beijing has recently courted.
“China urges the international community to strictly abide by the spirit of the relevant U.N. Security Council resolution and not take any actions that exceed the authority granted by that resolution,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said when asked about France’s action.
“We have always urged a political solution to the current crisis in Libya, so that Libya returns to peace and stability as soon as possible,” Hong said at a regular news conference.
The Chinese spokesman’s vague response — stressing concerns about living up to the resolution but not naming France — suggested that Beijing wants to avoid taking a firm public side on the arms shipment issue.
China is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, which in March passed a resolution that authorized the NATO bombing campaign.
China could have used its veto power as a permanent member of the Council to stymie the resolution, but instead abstained from the vote, along with Russia, allowing it to go through.
However, Beijing then quickly condemned the strikes and has repeatedly urged a ceasefire and compromise between the government and rebels.
China has recently met both Libyan government and rebel representatives, and Beijing has said this is part of an effort to encourage a negotiated end to the fighting.
But by courting the Libyan rebels, China has departed from its usual reluctance to entangle itself so deeply in other nations’ affairs.
NATO’s three-month-old bombing campaign has so far failed to dislodge the Libyan leader Gaddafi, straining the Western alliance. But Britain, France and the United States say they will not stop until he falls.
On Monday, the International Criminal Court issued warrants for Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam and Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi on charges of crimes against humanity for their alleged role in killing of civilian protesters who rose up against Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.
Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Alex Richardson