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U.S. diplomat visits Libyan rebel capital

BENGHAZI, Libya -- The highest-ranking U.S. diplomat in the Middle East was in the de facto rebel capital in eastern Libya yesterday, a show of growing support for the loosely formed movement that seeks to oust longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi.

A State Department statement called the three-day visit by Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, "another signal of the U.S.'s support" for the rebels' National Transitional Council, "a legitimate and credible interlocutor for the Libyan people."

Several countries, including France and Italy, have recognized the NTC, while the United States, Britain and others have established a diplomatic presence in Benghazi. Germany has also opened an office in Benghazi, the German government said yesterday.

Qatar is the only Arab country that has recognized the rebels, and Gambia is the only African nation to do so.

Libya's rebels have scrambled to organize their fighters and create a political leadership since the outbreak in mid-February of the uprising that seeks to oust Gadhafi, in power for more than four decades. Rebels now control the populated coastal strip in the country's east and the western port city of Misrata, which Gadhafi's forces have besieged for months. They also control pockets in the Nafusa mountain range in the west.

Feltman was to meet with council head Mustafa Abdul-Jalil and others before leaving today. The European Union's top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, opened an office Sunday, saying she looked forward to a better Libya "where Gadhafi will not be in the picture." -- AP

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