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China admits Gaddafi arms link

China has confirmed that it met Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi's aides in July on a visit to buy arms.

A government spokeswoman said Gaddafi's officials met Chinese companies but insisted that no contracts were signed and no weapons were shipped. She said China follows a United Nations ban on supplying arms to the toppled regime and backed the role of the UN in a post-conflict Libya.

"Chinese companies have not provided military products to Libya in any direct or indirect form," she said.

Although there was no indication that the government played a role in the contacts, the fact that the meetings were held could deliver a further blow to Beijing's ties with Libya's rebels while reinforcing the belief that China may have been trying to play both sides of the conflict.

China never endorsed the UN resolution authorising force against the Gaddafi regime and has yet to formally recognise the opposition National Transitional Council. Although Beijing belatedly opened up contacts with the rebels, it hosted Gaddafi's foreign minister in Beijing at the same time.

China and Russia had earlier questioned whether supplying weapons to rebels breached the terms of the UN ban. The head of the transitional council has in recent days accused Beijing of holding up the release of frozen Libyan funds held overseas, allegedly in order to first guarantee the safety of billions of dollars in Chinese investments in Libya.

While the NTC has said it will honour contracts made with Gaddafi's government, its officials have indicated they regard China as being in a separate category from the transitional government's strong backers such as France, Britain and the United States.

While Gaddafi obtained weapons from a number of sources, China has built a strong position as provider of small arms to many African nations, including those suffering internal conflict such as Sudan and Zimbabwe. China also sold weapons to both sides in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, apparently with no damage to its relations with their leaders.

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