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China deepens engagement with Libyan rebels

BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese diplomat met with leaders of Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) at their base in Benghazi, China’s Foreign Ministry said on Thursday, building deeper relationships with rebels seeking to oust Muammar Gaddafi.

The visit by Chen Xiaodong, China’s foreign ministry chief for North African affairs, was the second official meeting between China and Libyan opposition leaders in less than a month and comes as rebels advanced on Gaddafi’s stronghold in Tripoli on Wednesday.

Chen told the deputy head of the NTC Ali Essawi that China considered the faction “an important dialogue partner,” echoing comments made by senior Chinese officials on rebel diplomatic chief Mahmoud Jibril’s visit to Beijing in late June.

“The Libyan people have had enough of the pain of war and chaos which have resulted from the Libyan crisis of the past four months,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei paraphrased Chen as saying.

“China believes that the present situation cannot go on and a political resolution to find a way out of the Libyan crisis must be found as soon as possible,” Hong added, speaking at a regular news briefing in Beijing.

Hong said that the Libyan rebels told envoy Chen they “did not reject the African Union’s relevant suggestions of talks.”

Last week, African Union leaders offered to host talks between the Libyan government and rebels.

Chen is the most senior official yet to hold talks with the NTC in Libya, although a Chinese diplomat based in Egypt visited the Libyan rebels in Benghazi for the first time in early June.

China, never very close to Gaddafi, also hosted Libya’s Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi in early June. But Beijing’s courting of the rebels has marked something of a practical policy adjustment for China, which generally avoids entangling itself in nations’ domestic affairs.

Chen said China was “deeply concerned” about the five-month-old civil war and attached “great importance to the NTC’s role in solving the crisis,” spokesman Hong added.

The combatants should begin substantial talks on ceasing hostilities and make a positive response to the international community’s mediation proposal, the official Xinhua news agency cited Chen as saying.

Reports that Gaddafi was seeking a deal under which he would step down have come amid pressure from advancing opposition forces, sanctions, and a NATO bombing campaign.

His government has denied any such negotiations are underway, and NATO’s chief has said he had no confirmation that Gaddafi was looking for a deal to relinquish power.

China was among the emerging powers that abstained in March when the United Nations Security Council authorized NATO-led air strikes to stop Gaddafi’s forces from threatening civilians. China could have used its veto power as a permanent member.

But it also condemned the strikes, and has repeatedly called

for a ceasefire and political compromise.

Reporting by Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Sabrina Mao; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani