International powers meeting in London on Tuesday edged closer to an exile plan for embattled Libyan leader Muammar Gadadfi, as France said it was ready to discuss military aid for opposition.
More than 40 countries and organizations, including the United Nations and NATO, agreed to create a contact group to map out a future for Libya and to meet again as soon as possible in the Arab state of Qatar.
Anti-Gaddafi fighters fled under heavy tank and artillery fire from Ras Lanuf in eastern Libya on Wednesday after Gadadfi’s troops overran the strategic oil refinery town, AFP reporters said.
The opposition fighters retreating in their hundreds from the front lines through Uqayla, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Ras Lanuf, called for coalition air strikes on Gaddafi’s forces, which they said had failed to come in the night.
"We are facing a big problem. We are pulling back," said one fighter, Salama Dadida, as hundreds of cars and pickup trucks sped from Uqayla towards Brega, 240 kilometres (150 miles) south of the rebel stronghold Benghazi.
"Gaddafi’s troops are firing rockets and tank shells," he said.
"We want the French to bomb the (Gaddafi) soldiers," said another fighter, Ali Atia al-Faturi, as the sound of shelling and gunfire grew louder.
On Tuesday, a U.S. Navy ship fired 22 Tomahawk cruise missiles at weapon storage sites around Tripoli.
The Libyan missiles targeted by the U.S. onslaught could have been used by pro-Gaddafi forces defending Tripoli, should heavy combat spread to the capital, which remains under Gaddafi's control.
The anti-Gaddafi fighters are outmatched in training, equipment and other measures of military might by Gaddafi's remaining forces, and would be hard-pressed to mount a full-scale battle for Tripoli now.
Gaddafi lost legitimacy
British Foreign Minister William Hague, who chaired the conference, said the delegates "agreed that Gaddafi and his regime have completely lost legitimacy."
The representatives had agreed to continue military action until Gaddafi met all the conditions of the U.N. resolution authorizing a no-fly zone and other measures to protect civilians, he added.
Qatar had also agreed to facilitate the sale of Libyan oil, he said.
The statement made no mention of an exile plan for Gaddafi, but Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told AFP that the participants had "unanimously" agreed that Gaddafi should leave the country.
"Beyond that, it depends on the country which may offer to welcome Gaddafi," he added.
"There is as yet no formal proposal, no country has formulated such a plan, even the African countries which may be ready to make one."
Beyond that, it depends on the country which may offer to welcome Gaddafi
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UK pro ICC move
While Hague said Britain still wanted Gaddafi to face the International Criminal Court, he refused to rule out the possibility of exile, which Spain's foreign minister had also earlier described as a possibility.
"We're not engaged in the United Kingdom in looking for somewhere for him to go, (but) that doesn't exclude others doing so," Hague said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the conference to plot a post-Gaddfi political landscape, as well as to iron out differences over the military mission.
Ten days of air strikes by the United States, France and Britain have allowed anti-Gaddafi fighters to push back westwards, although they were halted near the key city of Sirte on Tuesday.
Gaddafi's forces also swept through Misrata Tuesday, which had been in rebel hands.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe acknowledged that arming or training the anti-Gaddafi fighters was not covered in the U.N. Security Council resolutions on Libya.
"Having said that, we are prepared to discuss this with our partners," he told reporters.
Clinton and Hague both said, however, that the issue had not been discussed at the talks.
In a letter addressed to the London meeting, Gaddafi said the offensive was "barbaric and unjust".
Cameron and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassem said after the talks they believed Libya could "look forward to a future free from violence, oppression and uncertainty," in an opinion piece for Asharq Al-Awsat, a London based Arabic newspaper.
The pair praised the action of the international community, claiming that the military operation had "saved the city of Benghazi" and "averted a massacre."
Libya's main opposition group, the Transitional National Council, issued a statement at the talks in London vowing to work for free and fair elections in a "modern, free and united state".
Envoy meeting Clinton
The group's envoy, Mahmud Jibril, was also in London. While not invited to attend the conference, he met with Clinton, Hague and the foreign ministers of France and Germany on the sidelines.
A senior administration official said the U.S. will soon send an envoy to Libya to deepen relations with the opposition leaders. But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning, said the meeting wouldn't constitute formal recognition.
While NATO finally agreed Sunday to take over full command of military operations in Libya from a U.S.-led coalition, the handover has been put back by 24 hours until Thursday.
While Britain, France and the United States have driven forward the military action on Libya, they have been determined to ensure Arab nations are seen to be supporting their efforts.
Iraq, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Qatar, Tunisia and Morocco were all represented in London.
But several Arab states did not attend the meeting, which set up the Libya "contact group".
They included Egypt, where pro-democracy protesters forced Hosni Mubarak from power last month; and Algeria, where President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been confronted with a wave of protests by pro-reform activists.
Amr Mussa, the Arab League chief, was represented by an ambassador after declining to take up his invitation.