France armed rebels besieged by Qaddafi forces

New recruits train and learn how to use weapons after signing up to join the rebel forces, at a training base in Misrata, Libya Tuesday, April 26, 2011. Residents of the besieged Libyan city of Misrata say pro-Gadhafi forces shelled the port area Tuesday, the city's sole lifeline. (AP Photo)
AP Photo

PARIS - A military spokesman says France has sent weapons to Libyan civilians besieged by Muammar Qaddafi's forces — the first NATO country to publicly announce it has armed rebel fighters.

Col. Thierry Burkhard says the deliveries took place in early June in the western Nafusa mountains when civilians were encircled by Qaddafi's forces and his government refused to allow a humanitarian aid corridor there.

Burkhard told The Associated Press Wednesday that the weapons were parachuted in by air and included "self-defense assets" like assault weapons, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and munitions.

France and Britain, backed by the United States, have been among the main powers behind a monthslong NATO-led air campaign to protect civilians from assaults by Qaddafi's forces.

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Meanwhile, Libya's cash-strapped opposition has received donor funds to pay salaries to public-sector workers in rebel-held areas, Britain confirmed on Wednesday.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague told lawmakers that a first payment of $100 million in international aid money had been made to Libya's main opposition group.

At a meeting in the United Arab Emirates earlier this month, the international contact group on Libya pledged more than $1.3 billion to help support Libya's Transitional National Council.

"In the last week they received the first international funding ... through the temporary financing mechanism set up by the contact group for vital fuel and salaries," Hague told lawmakers.

He said a meeting of the contact group in Istanbul next month would seek to ensure "the international community is ready to support the Libyan people in building a stable future."

The Transitional National Council said that funds would be used to pay teachers, street cleaners and other workers providing essential services.

Opposition Finance Minister Ali Tarhouni has made repeated pleas for urgent funds, and warned on Tuesday that hospitals in the eastern city of Benghazi were running low on medical supplies.

Hague said that, in addition to distributing salaries, Libya's opposition had begun work aimed starting a dialogue with some of those loyal to Moammar Qaddafi once the leader is deposed.

"The (council) has begun to make contacts across Libya in support of that process," Hague said.

Under a postconflict plan drafted by British, U.S., Turkish and other officials, the U.K. will assist the opposition in attempts to build a political consensus.

Some analysts have expressed concern about the likely reaction of the public in Western towns where Qaddafi still enjoys support.

"It is vital that plans for postconflict Libya are prepared and as far as possible, agreed in advance," Hague told legislators.

Hague also acknowledged that there was no sign in Syria that the regime's violent crackdown on demonstrations was being slowed by international condemnation.

"Protests across the country are still being met by unacceptable violence from the regime, and the reports of Syrian troop movements near the Turkish border are of serious concern," Hague said.

He repeated calls for Syrian President Bashar Assad to embrace reform, or step aside.

In a speech on June 20, Assad promised modest changes, including a reform which could potentially allow political parties other than his ruling Baath Party a role in Syria's future.

Hague said the speech had been "disappointing in its failure to take any concrete action to stop the violence and change the situation on the ground."