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U.S. to give Libyan rebels non-lethal aid

Updated 1:09 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration plans to give the Libyan opposition $25 million in non-lethal assistance in what will be the first direct U.S. aid to the rebels after weeks of assessing their capabilities and intentions, officials said Wednesday.

Amid a debate over whether to offer the rebels broader assistance, including cash and possibly weapons and ammunition, the administration has informed Congress that President Barack Obama intends to use his so-called "drawdown authority" to give the opposition up to $25 million in surplus American goods to help protect civilians in rebel-held areas threatened by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's forces, the officials said.

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Congress was notified in writing of the plan late last week and was briefed in greater detail on Tuesday by Gene Cretz, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, the officials said.

Initially, the administration had proposed supplying the rebels with vehicles and portable fuel storage tanks but those items were dropped from the list of potential aid on Wednesday after concerns were expressed that those could be converted into offensive military assets, the officials said.

The list is still being revised but now covers items such as medical supplies, uniforms, boots, tents, personal protective gear, radios and Halal meals, the officials said. Most of the items are expected to come from Pentagon stocks, they said.

"There is an urgency in providing these commodities," the State Department said in a notice sent last Friday to lawmakers and obtained by The Associated Press.

The assistance will be sent through groups such as the Transitional National Council, an opposition umbrella organization based in the port city of Benghazi, the officials said.

The move comes as U.S. allies step up their aid to the rebels. Italy and France said Wednesday that they will send military instructors to train the rebels, a day after the U.K. made a similar announcement.

Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said 10 instructors will be going. He spoke Wednesday after meeting with his British counterpart, Liam Fox. France earlier said it would send military officers to help rebel forces organize and bolster the NATO air campaign that has failed to rout Muammar Qaddafi's military.

President Nicolas Sarkozy also said Wednesday that France will intensify airstrikes at rebels' request.

Both countries said they had no plans to deploy ground troops in Libya, but France said the U.N. Security Council should consider it.

Europe continues to call for the U.S. to offer direct assistance outside its participation in NATO military operations. France and Italy have both recognized the Transitional National Council as Libya's legitimate government, something the U.S. has yet to do.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that Obama was aware of the allies' decision to send in advisers "and hopes — believes — that it will help the opposition. But it does not at all change the president's policy on no boots on the ground for American troops."

There has been much debate over whether to supply the rebels with weapons and the officials said that option remains on the table.

The officials said the non-lethal assistance would be monitored to ensure it is used properly, although they noted that the items to be sent present a low risk of misuse.

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