Image: A man walks past a house allegedly destroyed by Gadhafi's army in the town of Ajdabiya
Vassil Donev  /  EPA
A man walks past a house allegedly destroyed by Gadhafi's army in the eastern town of Ajdabiya on Wednesday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 4/20/2011 7:28:26 PM ET 2011-04-20T23:28:26

The Obama administration plans to give the Libyan opposition $25 million in non-lethal assistance in 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, led by the Transitional National Council in Benghazi, up to $25 million in surplus American goods to help protect civilians in rebel-held areas threatened by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who recommended that Obama authorize the assistance, said the aid would go to support the council and "our efforts to protect civilians and the civilian populated areas that are under threat of attack from their own government in Libya." She said the aid "will be drawn down from items already in government stocks that correspond with the needs that we have heard from the Transitional National Council."

Slideshow: Conflict in Libya (on this page)

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, officials said.

Meanwhile, France and Italy on Wednesday promised more support for Libya's opposition, saying they would join Britain in sending military advisers to help the rebels break a battlefield stalemate. A rebel spokesman said the advisers would be a big help.

France also said it would also intensify airstrikes against Libyan military targets after a month of NATO airstrikes has failed to rout Gadhafi's forces.

Story: Renowned war filmmaker, prize-winning photojournalist killed in Libya

National Transition Council spokesman Mustafa Gheirani said the military advisers would be a big help since the rebels lack the organization necessary to take on Gadhafi's forces.

"My understanding is that it will all be administrative help, nothing with weapons and nothing in the field," Gheirani said.

The rebels have repeatedly said they do not want foreign troops on the ground. Asked how the acceptance of foreign military advisers conformed with that view, Gheirani said a few officers differed from having thousands of foreign troops squaring off against the forces of longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi forces.

"Even foreign troops who are going to protect humanitarian aid to reach a certain area might be acceptable depending on the conditions," said Gheirani.

The announcements came after a representative of the rebels' transitional government met with French and Italian leaders. The French Foreign Ministry said it already has military liaison officers on the ground in the rebel-held city of Benghazi. The officers are trying to help the rebels organize and bolster the NATO air campaign that has failed to rout Gadhafi's military.

Also on Wednesday, Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said that Western forces may need to step up intervention in Libya while remaining under the terms of the UN Security Council resolution.

Image: Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa
Mauro Scrobogna  /  LaPresse via AP
Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said Wednesday that Gadhafi would only leave power if he were forced. He added that the weapons available to Gadhafi's forces are superior to rebel arms.

Speaking to the foreign press association in Rome, La Russa said that Libyan leader Gadhafi would only leave power if he were forced. He added that the weapons available to Gadhafi's forces are superior to rebel arms.

Mountain town shelled
Meanwhile, Gadhafi's loyalists shelled a mountain town and clashed with opposition forces in a besieged coastal city Wednesday, rebels said, as the Libyan leader sought to quell resistance in the western part of the country that is largely under his control.

In Geneva, the U.N.'s top human rights official said Libyan government forces may be committing war crimes by using heavy weapons against civilians in the besieged port city of Misrata. Navi Pillay said Gadhafi's troops should be aware that their actions will be scrutinized by the International Criminal Court.

Fighting in Libya erupted two months ago, when protests against Gadhafi's four decades in power turned into an armed uprising. Rebels now control most of the east, while Gadhafi holds most of the west. However, there are rebel-held areas in western Libya, particularly the Nafusa mountain area that is home to Libya's Berber minority.

Since the weekend, the Nafusa region town of Yifran, with a population of about 25,000, has come under daily attack with Grad rockets, tank shells and anti-aircraft guns, said a rebel fighter, who would only give his first name, Belgassem, for fear of reprisals.

The fighting in the mountain region has sent thousands fleeing into nearby Tunisia. Four mortar shells from the fighting landed on Tunisian territory on Monday, Tunisian officials said.

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The rebel fighter said the assault damaged a water tank as well as homes in Yifran. Doctors had to abandon the town's hospital because of the shelling, said Belgassem, speaking by phone from the nearby town of Qalaa.

Qalaa has also come under attack, but there was no shelling Wednesday, Belgassem said. "We are defending our city and they can't get into the center because we are here," he said.

In Nalut, another mountain town near the Tunisian border, rebels fought off Gadhafi loyalists on Monday and pursued them for about 30 kilometers (18 miles), said Ayman, a rebel fighter from Nalut. In clashes Tuesday, the rebels seized weapons and ammunition from Gadhafi's forces, said Ayman, who would not give his last name for fear of repercussions.

He said four rebels were killed in two days of fighting.

Fleeing to Tunisia
International aid officials said more than 10,000 people from the Nafusa mountain area have fled to Tunisia in recent days, avoiding official border crossings manned by Gadhafi loyalists. The refugees stay in camps near the Tunisian border towns of Dehiba and Remada, or are being hosted by Tunisian families.

Firas Kayal, an official with the U.N. refugee agency, said the Libyan border area "has apparently been under heavy fighting and shelling between opposition forces and Gadhafi."

The refugees "enter in the cars, through the mountains, cars filled with luggage and families and women and children and personal items," he said.

Yifran, Qalaa, Nalut and others near the Tunisian borders are inhibited by Berbers who suffered under Gadhafi repressive policies. Gadhafi has dubbed Berbers as 'product of colonialism' created by the west to divide Libya. In the 1970s, members of pan-Berber associations were arrested and Berber activities were banned.

New clashes erupted Wednesday in the other rebel outpost in western Libya, the city of Misrata, where British photojournalist Tim Hetherington, whose documentary film on the war in Afghanistan was nominated for an Oscar, was killed, The New York Times reported on Wednesday.

Three others working beside him were wounded by fire from a rocket propelled grenade, according to several media reports.

The wounds to two of the photographers — Chris Hondros and Guy Martin — were in grave condition, colleagues told the Times.

Exchanges of fire were heard between Libyan troops and armed residents in the city center. NATO planes flew overhead, but did not carry out airstrikes. Snipers opened fire from rooftops, said Abdel Salam, a rebel fighter who wanted to be identified only by his given name for fear of reprisal.

The rebels control the port area, while Gadhafi's forces have deployed along Tripoli Street, a downtown thoroughfare.

Misrata has been under siege for nearly two months. In recent days, Gadhafi's forces have intensified their assault on the city, firing tank shells and rockets into residential areas, according to witnesses and human rights groups.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: NATO backs Younes, seeks to break stalemate

  1. Closed captioning of: NATO backs Younes, seeks to break stalemate

    >>> in addition to the nato air campaign in libya, the obama administration is preparing to provide those anti-gadhafi rebels on the ground with as much as $25 million in aid for the forces to be used for things like body armor and medical supplies and three nations, britten, france, and italy, said they're sending advisers to benghazi to help in a non-combat role. already, rumors have started up today. stephanie gosk is in benghazi for us tonight. good evening.

    >> it's made to begin like a mission. these are not ground troops . they're military officers who won't be taking part in fighting. they'll help with lujustices, communication, and organization, and 24r are signs all the way to the top, that kind of help is needed. two generals have been fighting very publicly for the command position of the rebel forces, and after days of bad publicity where they both claim they're in charge, finally the national security council came out in support of one of them. he's the former interior minister here as well as a form former friend of gadhafi. nato helps the military advisers and an increase in air strikes will help end the military stalemate here and hopefully end that intense violence where already hundreds of civilians have been killed and now two award winning yearnalists.

    >> stephanie gosk has been covering

Photos: Libya's uprising against Gadhafi

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  1. People gathering in Benghazi, Libya in mid-February of 2011 as protest against the rule of Moammar Gadhafi grew, in part triggered by the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel. EDITOR'S NOTE: The content, date and location of this image could not be independently verified. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Buildings at the entrance to a security forces compound burn in Benghazi, Feb. 21, 2011. Libyan protesters celebrated in the streets of Benghazi, claiming control of the country's second largest city after bloody fighting, and anti-government unrest spread to the capital with clashes in Tripoli's main square for the first time. (Alaguri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi speaks on state television. Feb. 22, and signalled his defiance over a mounting revolt against his 41-year rule. (Libya TV via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Libyan U.N. ambassador Shalgham is embraced by Dabbashi, Libya's deputy U.N. Ambassador after denouncing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for the first time during a Security Council meeting at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York on Feb. 25. Shalgam, a longtime friend and member of Gadhafi's inner circle, had previously refused to denounce Gadhafi. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Thousands of Libyans gather for the Muslim Friday prayers outside the courthouse in the eastern city of Benghazi on Feb. 25, 2011. Perhaps 8,000 people gathered for the midday prayers with a local imam, who delivered his sermon alongside the coffins of three men killed in the violent uprising that routed Gadhafi loyalists from Benghazi. (Gianluigi Guercia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rebels hold a young man at gunpoint, who they accuse of being a loyalist to Gadhafi, between the towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf, March 3, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Pro-Gadhafi soldiers and supporters gather in Green Square in Tripoli, March 6, 2011. Thousands of Moammar Gadhafi's supporters poured into the streets of Tripoli, waving flags and firing their guns in the air in the Libyan leader's main stronghold, claiming overnight military successes. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rebel fighters jump away from shrapnel during heavy shelling by forces loyal to Gadhafi near Bin Jawad, March 6. Rebels in east Libya regrouped and advanced on Bin Jawad after Gadhafi forces ambushed rebel fighters and ejected them from the town earlier in the day. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Libyan rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an airforce fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf on March 7, 2011. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Libyan rebels fire rockets at government troops on the frontline. March 9, 2011 near Ras Lanuf. The rebels pushed back government troops westward towards Ben Jawat. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Libyan government soldiers aboard tanks at the west gate of the town Ajdabiyah March 16, 2011. Libya's army pounded an opposition-held city in the country's west and battled fighters trying to block its advance on a rebel bastion in the east amid flagging diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed. EDITOR'S NOTE: Picture taken on a government guided tour. (Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Libyan people in Benghazi celebrate after the United Nations Security Council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, March 18. Thousands of Libyans erupted in cheers as the news flashed on a giant screen in besieged Benghazi late March 17. After weeks of discussion, the UN Security Council banned flights in Libya's airspace and authorized "all necessary means" to implement the ban, triggering intervention by individual countries and organizations like NATO. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A picture combo shows a Libyan jet bomber crashing after being apparently shot down in Benghazi on March 19, 2011 as the Libyan rebel stronghold came under attack. Air strikes and sustained shelling of the city's south sent thick smoke into the sky. (Patrick Baz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Residents of Benghazi flee the city along the road toward Tobruk, in an attempt to escape fighting in their city, March 19, 2011. Gaddafi's troops pushed into the outskirts of Benghazi, a city of 670,000 people, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt Western military intervention expected after a meeting of Western and Arab leaders in Paris. (Reuters TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Gadhafi explode after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A rebel fighter carries his weapon outside the northeastern Libyan town of Ajdabiyah, March 21, 2011. A wave of air strikes hit Gaddafi's troops around Ajdabiyah, a strategic town in the barren, scrub of eastern Libya that rebels aim to retake and where their fighters said they need more help. (Finbarr O'reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A Libyan rebel prays next to his gun on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, March 21, 2011. The international military intervention in Libya is likely to last "a while," a top French official said, echoing Moammar Gadhafi's warning of a long war ahead as rebels, energized by the strikes on their opponents. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Libyan rebels retreat as mortars from Gadhafi's forces are fired on them near the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, March 22, 2011. Coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night, targeting the air defenses and forces of Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, stopping his advances and handing some momentum back to the rebels, who were on the verge of defeat. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A Libyan man is comforted by hospital staff as he reacts after identifying his killed brother in the morgue of the Jalaa hospital in Benghazi, March 22, 2011. His brother was killed earlier in fighting around the city of Ajdabiya. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Volunteer fighters training at a rebel army training camp in Benghazi, March 29, 2011. Pro-government forces intensified their attacks on Libyan rebels, driving them back over ground they had taken in recent days. The rebels had reached Nawfaliya, but pulled back to Bin Jawad. (Manu Brabo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Smoke billows as seven explosions were reported in the tightly-guarded residence of leader Moammar Gadhafi and military targets in the suburb of Tajura. Two explosions also rocked the Libyan capital Tripoli on March 29, 2011, as NATO-led coalition aircraft had been seen in the skies over the capital. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A Libyan rebel urges people to leave, as shelling from Gadhafi's forces started landing on the frontline outside of Bin Jawaad, 93 miles east of Sirte, March 29, 2011. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. General Abdel-Fattah Younis, former interior minister in the Gadhafi regime who defected in the early days of the uprising, is greeted by Libyan rebels at the front line near Brega, April 1, 2011. (Altaf Qadri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Libyan men show the V-sign for victory as they stand on the deck of a Turkish ship arriving from Misrata to the port of Benghazi who were evacuated along with others the injured in the fighting between rebel and Gadhafi forces, April 03, 2011. The Turkish vessel took hundreds of people wounded in the Libyan uprising for treatment in Turkey from the two cities of Misrata and Benghazi. (Mahmud Hams / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A wounded prisoner from Gadhafi's forces is transported in the back of a pickup truck by rebels, on the way to a hospital for treatment, half way between Brega and Ajdabiya, April 9, 2011. Rebels say they took two prisoners after a clash with soldiers near Brega's university outside the government-controlled oil facilities, marking a noticeable advance by rebels. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. In this image taken from TV, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi makes a pubic appearance in Tripoli, April 14 2011. Gadhafi defiantly waved at his supporters while being driven around Tripoli while standing up through the sunroof of a car. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A rebel fighter celebrates as his comrades fire a rocket barrage toward the positions of government troops April 14, 2011, west of Ajdabiyah. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Gadhafi supporters hold copies of his portrait as they gather at the Bab Al Azizia compound in Tripoli, April 15, 2011. Rebels held much of eastern Libya by mid-April, while Gadhafi controlled the west, with the front line shifting back and forth in the middle. (Pier Paolo Cito / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Doctors work on a baby who suffered cuts from shrapnel that blasted through the window of his home during fighting in the besieged city of Misrata, April 18, 2011. Thousands of civilians are trapped in Misrata as fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels there. The Libyan government has come under international criticism for using heavy weapons and artillery in its assault on Misrata. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. MISRATA, LIBYA - APRIL 20: Libyan rebel fighters discuss how to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from the next room during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011 in Misrata, Libya. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi April 20, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building that fought back instead of surrendering, firing on the rebels in the building and seriously wounding two of them during the standoff. Fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels ensconced there. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images) (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Libyan rebel fighters carry out a comrade wounded during an effort to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from a building during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Gaddafi, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building where they fought back instead of surrendering. Two rebels were seriously wounded during the standoff. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Rebels tread carefully as they prepare to invade a house where soldiers from the pro-government forces had their base in the Zwabi area of Misrata on April 24, 2011. (Andre Liohn / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Libyans inspect damage and an unexploded missile at the Gadhafi family compound in a residential area of Tripoli, May 1, 2011. Gadhafi escaped a NATO missile strike in Tripoli that killed one of his sons and three young grandchildren. EDITOR'S NOTE: Photo taken on a government guided tour. (Darko Bandic / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Moammar Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, center, leaves the funeral of his brother Saif Al-Arab Gadhafi, who was killed during air strikes by coalition forces, at the El Hani cemetery in Tripoli, May 2, 2011. Crowds chanting Gadhafi's name gathered in Tripoli for the funeral of his son and three grandchildren. (Louafi Larbi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Fleeing migrants and Libyans are seen on board an International Organization of Migration ship leaving the port of Misrata on May 4, 2011, as Gadhafi forces continued to pound the city. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Libyan men watch as the main fuel depot in Libya's third largest city, Misrata, burns following a bombing by Gadhafi's forces on May 7, 2011. Libyan regime forces shelled fuel depots in Misrata and dropped mines into its harbor using helicopters bearing the Red Cross emblem, rebels said as they braced for a ground assault. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Libyan rebels celebrate near the airport of Misrata on May 11, 2011 after capturing the city's strategic airport following a fierce battle with Moammar Gadhafi's troops -- their first significant advance in weeks. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Women react after a protest against Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Benghazi, Libya, on May 16, 2011. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, announced that he would seek arrest warrants against the leader of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and the country's intelligence chief on charges of crimes against humanity. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Tripoli street in Misrata is seen from the terrace of a building used by Gadhafi’s snipers before the rebels took control of the area on May 22, 2011. The weeks-long siege of the city ended in mid-May and Tripoli Street was the site of the fiercest fighting in the battle and a turnin point in the war. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A rebel fighter gives water to a soldier loyal to Gadhafi after he was wounded and then captured near the front line, west of Misrata on May 23, 2011. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. An uncle, left, prays over the body of one and a half year-old Mohsen Ali al-Sheikh during a washing ritual during the funeral at his family's house in Misrata, May 27, 2011. The child was killed by a gunshot during clashes between rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces earlier in the day. (Wissam Saleh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. The body of a drowned refugee floats near a capsized ship which was transporting an estimated 850 refugees from Libya, approximately 22 miles north of the Tunisian islands of Kerkennah, June 4, 2011. At least 578 survived the sinking. (Lindsay Mackenzie / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. A photograph taken from a video by a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows Mutassem Gadhafi, son of Moammar Gadhafi, drinking water and smoking a cigarette following his capture and shortly before his death, in Sirte, Oct. 20, 2011. (- / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. A photograph taken from mobile phone video of a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows the capture of Moammar Gadhafi in Sirte on Oct. 20, 2011. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. This image provided by the Libyan Youth Group on Nov. 19, 2011, shows Seif al-Islam Gadhafi after he was captured near the Niger border with Libya. Moammar Gadhafi's son, the only wanted member of the ousted ruling family to remain at large, was captured as he traveled with aides in a convoy in Libya's southern desert. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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