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US pledges aid for Libya opposition

The United States government has said it plans to give the Libyan opposition millions of dollars of aid.

The White House made the announcement amid a debate over whether to offer the rebels broader assistance, including cash and possibly weapons and ammunition.

The Obama administration 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 US dollars (£15.2 million) in surplus American goods to help protect civilians in rebel-held areas threatened by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who recommended that Mr Obama authorised 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".

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

"This is not a blank cheque," said Mrs Clinton. "This opposition, which has held its own against a brutal assault by the Gaddafi forces, was not an organised militia," she said. "It was not a group that had been planning to oppose the rule of Gaddafi for years. It was a spontaneous response within the context of the broader Arab spring.

"These are mostly business people, students, lawyers, doctors, professors who have very bravely moved to defend their communities and to call for an end to the regime in Libya."

Meanwhile, forces loyal to Gaddafi shelled a mountain town and clashed with opposition forces in a besieged coastal city as the Libyan leader sought to quell resistance in the western part of the country that is largely under his control.

In Geneva, the UN'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 Gaddafi's troops should be aware that their actions will be scrutinised by the International Criminal Court.

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