TRIPOLI, Libya — 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.
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.