By Matt Robinson
MISRATA, Libya, June 23 (Reuters) – A split has opened within the NATO-led air campaign against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, with France and Britain rejecting an Italian call for a halt to military action to allow aid access.
China also signalled a shift in its stance on the conflict, describing as a “dialogue partner” the rebels who, four months into the uprising, are making only slow gains in their effort to reach the capital Tripoli and topple Gaddafi.
Rebels said NATO air strikes hit government weapons depots south of the rebel-held western mountain town of Zintan, while an unverified Libyan TV report said “dozens” of people were killed in a separate NATO attack on the town of Zlitan.
NATO’s first acknowledgment this weekend that it may have caused civilian casualties risks hurting support for a mission that secured a U.N. mandate despite deep misgivings from states in the Arab world, Europe and beyond.
Gaddafi branded NATO states as “murderers” in an audio speech broadcast late on Wednesday, and the deaths have prompted some in the alliance itself to question its tactics.
“The need to look for a ceasefire has become more pressing,” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told parliament.
“As well as the ceasefire, which is the first stage towards a political negotiation, a humanitarian stop to military action is fundamental to allow immediate humanitarian aid.”
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