While peace efforts remain the top objective, there also appears to be a shift toward trying to boost the rebels’ firepower to protect their territory from government offensives. One proposal noted by Italy - Libya’s former colonial ruler - calls for allies providing defensive weapons.

A spokesman for Libyan rebels urged the U.S. military on Wednesday to reassert a stronger role in the NATO—led air campaign or risk more civilian casualties in the stalemate fighting between Muammar Qadhafi and forces seeking to end his four—decade rule.

The appeal by the spokesman, Mahmoud Shammam, appeared to set the urgent tone for the rebels’ meetings with the U.N.’s secretary—general and other top Western and Arab envoys as they gathered in Qatar’s capital to discuss ways to end the Libyan crisis.

While peace efforts remain the top objective, there also appears to be a shift toward trying to boost the rebels’ firepower to protect their territory from government offensives. One proposal noted by Italy - Libya’s former colonial ruler - calls for allies providing defensive weapons.

But Mr. Shamman said the anti—Qadhafi forces will not bend on their demands that any peace proposal require Col. Qadhafi and his inner circle to leave the country. The rebel conditions for Col. Qadhafi’s ouster effectively killed a ceasefire bid by Africa’s main political bloc this week.

Mr. Shammam also urged NATO to step up its air campaign to hit pro—Qadhafi forces in efforts to protect civilians and appealed for a greater role by the United States, which turned over operations to the military bloc last month. Mr. Shammam’s comments echoed calls by Foreign Minister Alain Juppe and others after government forces shelled the rebel—held city of Misrata in western Libya.

“When the Americans were involved the mission was very active and it was more leaning toward protecting the civilians,” said Mr. Shammam.

“NATO is very slow responding to these attacks on the civilians. We’d like to see more work towards protecting the civilians,” Mr. Shammam said before the one—day conference that includes Britain’s foreign secretary, senior State Department envoy William J. Burns and U.N. Secretary—General Ban Ki—moon.

It also is expected to be the first high—profile forum for Qadhafi’s former foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, who defected to Britain last month. But rebel officials insisted Mr. Koussa has no role in their movement.

In Benghazi, the rebels’ stronghold in eastern Libya, rebel spokesman Abdel—Hafidh Ghoga said on Tuesday that talks with Koussa was “not on the agenda.” Shammam told Britain’s Sky News- “We did not invite him here. He is not part of our delegation.”

The host for the first meeting of the Libyan Contact Group - the wealthy Gulf state of Qatar - is one of the few Arab countries providing warplanes to the NATO air campaign and has helped Libyan rebels sell oil to buy weapons and supplies.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he believes the Libyan opposition is “steadily becoming better organized,” but could not predict how long the military stalemate will persist.

“It will end at some stage with the departure of Qadhafi, with a political process in Libya that is a more inclusive process,” he told the BBC.

But an official from the African Union - which tried this week to broker a peace pact - suggested there is no international consensus on trying to force out Col. Qadhafi.

“We cannot as international or regional organizations say, ‘Go,’” said Noureddine Mezni, a spokesman for the bloc’s chairman.

Italy’s foreign ministry spokesman, Maurizio Massari, said allies may consider providing “defensive weapons” and equipment to rebels, but did not give details on the type of arms.

“The discussion of arms is certainly on the table,” he said. “We are not talking about offensive arms ... Every country will decide. It is a political decision.”

On Tuesday, French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet complained that France and Britain were carrying “the brunt of the burden.” He said the reduced U.S. effort - American forces are now in support, not combat, roles in the airstrike campaign - have made it impossible “to loosen the noose around Misrata,” which has become a symbol of the resistance against Col. Qadhafi.

“Let’s be realistic. The fact that the U.S. has left the sort of the kinetic part of the air operation has had a sizable impact. That is fairly obvious,” said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.

In Paris, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy planned talks later on Wednesday about the military operation in Libya.

Libyan opposition spokesman Ali al—Issawi said Col. Qadhafi’s soldiers have killed about 10,000 people throughout the country and injured 30,000 others, with 7,000 of the injured facing life—threatening wounds. He said an additional 20,000 people were missing and suspected of being in Col. Qadhafi’s prisons. There was no way to independently verify his claims.

Qatar, meanwhile, is helping with a vital fuel link for the rebels.

Qatar said it oversaw last week’s sale of more than $100 million in crude oil from rebel—held areas, and has delivered four shipments of fuel to Benghazi, including diesel, propane and gasoline.

Talks on Libya shift to Cairo on Thursday at the Arab League headquarters.

The U.N. secretary—general is expected to join others, including Arab League Secretary—General Amr Moussa, African Union commission chairman Jean Ping and the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton. The meeting seeks to discuss a Turkish peace initiative.

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