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Italy fully backs Libya rebels, promises arms and aid

altItaly threw its full support behind Libyan rebels yesterday, formally recognising them as the only legitimate representatives of the country and promising to supply them with weapons to fight and experts to rebuild.

Rome, the former Libyan colonial power, also said overtures from envoys sent by Muammar Gaddafi who travelled to some European capitals were "not credible" and demanded that Gaddafi and his family had to leave the country.

"We have decided to recognise the council as the only political, legitimate interlocutor to represent Libya," Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said after talks with Ali Essawi, the member of the Libyan rebel council in charge of foreign affairs.

The comments were the clearest sign yet from Italy, previously Gaddafi's closest friend in Europe, that it now fully backs the Transitional National Council, the rebel group that has coalesced out of disparate anti-Gaddafi forces.

Frattini said he had spoken to officials in Greece after Deputy Libyan Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi flew there to discuss an end to the fighting in Libya.

"These proposals are not credible," he said, adding that he had spoken to the Greek foreign minister who said Gaddafi's envoy had pledged to respect a ceasefire.

"But nothing was said about the departure of Gaddafi, which is one of the conditions, so it is not possible to accept this point of view," Frattini said.

"A solution for the future of Libya has a pre-condition -- that Gaddafi's regime leaves and is out and that Gaddafi himself and his family leave the country," he said.

The foreign minister promised that Italy, which is part of the western coalition carrying out airstrikes against Gaddafi's forces, would arm the rebels if they needed the weapons to defend themselves, particularly if civilians were at risk.

"Since we (the coalition forces) cannot fight on the ground, helping people to self defence through supply of arms cannot be excluded according to the U.N. resolution," he said, adding that coalition air strikes were still necessary.

"We will discuss this with our partners, but under a strictly legal point of view (arming rebels) cannot be seen as being against the resolution," he said.

Speaking alongside Frattini, Ali Essawi sought to reassure his hosts that companies including oil giant Eni, one of the biggest foreign producers in Libya, would not be penalised by a future rebel government.

He said the legitimate rights of foreigners and foreign companies in Libya would be respected.

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