NATO-backed allies aim to get aid to Libya rebels

Coalition meets in Rome to discuss options for funneling money to anti-Gaddafi rebels as rockets are fired into town of Zintan.

libyan rebels sirte 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
libyan rebels sirte 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
ROME/TRIPOLI - The NATO-backed coalition against Muammar Gaddafi said on Thursday it would create a fund for rebels running short of supplies and money, as the Libyan leader's forces pounded a rebel town in the west.
Italy, host of a meeting in Rome of the "Contact Group" on Libya, said the temporary special fund would aim to channel cash to the rebel administration in its eastern Libyan stronghold of Benghazi.
RELATED:Clinton: US considering sanctions against SyriaLibya rebels: Gaddafi should face bin Laden's fateMcCain slams Obama for taking 'backseat role' in LibyaA rebel spokesman in rebel-held Zintan, south-west of the Libyan capital, said pro-Gaddafi forces had fired about 50 Russian-made Grad rockets into the town so far on Thursday.
The spokesman, called Abdulrahamn, said the first salvo landed at about 6:45 (0445 GMT). There were no immediate reports of casualties, the spokesman said.
While the fighting has generally descended into a stalemate, the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC), which has been recognised by France, Italy and Qatar, has appealed for loans of up to $3 billion as it seeks to tip the balance.
But efforts to unblock Libyan state assets frozen in overseas accounts, or to allow the rebels to get past UN sanctions that prevent their selling oil on international markets, have been held up.
"We'll be discussing a financial mechanism, we'll be discussing other forms of aid," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a joint news conference with Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini.
"I will be formally announcing our non-lethal assistance so I think that there is an effort with urgency to meet the requests that the TNC is making," she said.
Thursday's meeting brings together foreign ministers from more than 20 countries including France, Britain, the United States, Italy and Qatar as well as representatives of the Arab League and the African Union.
Mahmoud Shammam, chief spokesman for the transitional council, has said the rebels urgently need $1.5 billion to cover immediate running costs.
"We need this for medical supplies, for food supplies, to keep the minimum functions of normal life -- electricity, running hospitals etc," he said on Wednesday.
Other rebels have spoken of needing $2 billion- $3 billion to try to shore up an administration created from scratch with no substantial sources of funding, and to pay the state salaries on which most people depend.
The United States, Britain and France, leading a NATO air campaign, say they will not stop until Gaddafi is toppled.
Britain said it had expelled two more Libyan diplomats from London days after it ordered the country's ambassador to leave.
"I ordered the expulsion of the two diplomats on the basis that their activities were contrary to the interests of the UK," Foreign Secretary William Hague said. On Sunday, Libyan ambassador Omar Jelban was given 24 hours to leave Britain after the British government said its embassy in Tripoli had been attacked.
The attack on the British mission followed a NATO air raid on Tripoli that the Libyan government said had killed Gaddafi's youngest son and three of his grandchildren.