Paris: Moving ahead of its allies, France on Thursday became the first country to recognise Libya's rebel leadership in the eastern city of Benghazi and said it would soon exchange ambassadors with the insurgents.
The move was a victory for the Libyan National Council in its quest for recognition and a setback for Col. Moammar el-Gaddafi who has been seeking whatever international support he can as NATO members in Brussels began a debate about the possible imposition of a no-flight zone over Libya.
The French announcement came as loyalist forces in Libya claimed new successes against the rebels west of the capital in the town of Zawiyah, while, to the east, loyalist forces renewed ferocious assaults on the key oil town of Ras Lanuf.
President Nicolas Sarkozy met in Paris on Thursday with Mahmoud Jibril and Ali Al-Esawi, representatives of the Libyan National Council that was set up after the uprising in Libya erupted in February. He was the first head of state to meet with insurgent leaders.
Soon afterward, a French announcement said France recognised the council as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people. News reports said that, in response, Libya would break diplomatic relations with France.
The move puts France ahead of other European powers that have been seeking ways of supporting the rebels in their goal of toppling Colonel Gaddafi. Normally, European Union countries say they recognise states, not governments, but the European Parliament has advocated recognition of the rebel leadership in Benghazi.
France has also set itself apart from some other nations, including the United States, by insisting that any military support for the rebels be authorized by the United Nations Security Council, but not carried out by NATO, since the alliance has an aggressive image in the Arab world. Washington favors using NATO. While he was out of government, Alain Juppé, the new French foreign minister, opposed France resuming full membership in NATO.
France's aggressive diplomatic stance is seen as a way of showing commitment to the popular uprisings and democratic changes in the Middle East and North Africa, after Mr. Sarkozy admitted that Paris was slow to recognise the strength of the revolutionary movements in Tunisia, a former French protectorate, and Egypt.
The British and German governments both indicated on Thursday that their practice was to recognise only states, but British authorities called the rebels "valid interlocutors with whom we wish to work closely."
In a highly embarrassing incident last weekend, Britain sent a small contingent of diplomats and special forces to try to make contact with the rebels in Benghazi, but they were arrested and later withdrew aboard a British warship sent to pick them up.
For its part, Germany on Thursday ordered the freezing of Libyan assets, which the finance ministry in Berlin said were worth "billions." Rainer Brüderle, the German finance minister, said the decision would affect about 193 accounts held at 14 financial institutions in Germany.
In Brussels, NATO officials said on Thursday that the alliance has started 24-hour surveillance of Libyan airspace where Colonel Gaddafi has deployed warplanes against rebels trying to advance westward toward loyalist strongholds along the shores of the Gulf of Sirte.
But it was unclear what further steps NATO would end up taking, if any. The alliance's secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, told reporters that NATO was considering a "range of options," including humanitarian help, but that any move would be governed by three principles: that there was "demonstrable need," a "clear legal basis" and "firm regional support."
The Libyan National Council has been pressing for foreign aid amid divisions over the extent of external intervention in a revolt that rebel leaders want to preserve as a home-grown phenomenon. The insurgents have acknowledged being overwhelmed by the myriad tasks and challenges facing them.
"We've found ourselves in a vacuum," Mustafa Gheriani, an acting spokesman for the provisional leadership, said Tuesday in Benghazi. "Instead of worrying about establishing a transitional government, all we worry about are the need - security, what people require, where the uprising is going. Things are moving too fast."
In the evolving diplomacy surrounding the conflict, Colonel Gaddafi has sent envoys across Europe and, according to some reports, Latin America and Africa, in many cases to argue against international intervention.
On Wednesday, emissaries were reported to have visited Egypt, Greece, Portugal, Malta and Brussels, where European Union foreign ministers were meeting Thursday to discuss Libya.
Greece confirmed that the colonel himself had spoken with Prime Minister George A. Papandreou and a government statement in South Africa said that he had spoken by telephone with President Jacob Zuma.
South Africa's international relations minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, said on Thursday that Mr. Zuma told Colonel Gaddafi that South Africa "abhors the heinous human rights violations against his own people."
"We took advantage through our president to tell him this has to stop with immediate effect," the South African Press Association news agency reported.