BEIJING, June 7 (Reuters) - A Chinese diplomat visited the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi for talks with the National Transitional Council fighting to oust Muammar Gaddafi, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, adding to signs that Beijing is courting the insurgents.
A Egypt-based Chinese diplomat went to the east Libyan city to "understand the local humanitarian situation and the state of Chinese-funded firms", the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website (www.mfa.gov.cn) late on Monday.
The diplomat also met leaders of the rebel Council, the statement said, without giving any details.
The disclosure comes a few days after China announced its ambassador in Qatar had met Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the rebel's de facto political leader, its first confirmed contact with the insurgents.
China has so far stuck to its public position of not taking sides in the fighting in Libya, but the meetings amount to a fresh diplomatic setback for the embattled Muammar Gaddafi.
China has also moved to bolster ties with the emerging governments in Egypt and Tunisia after their long-time leaders fell from power in popular uprisings sweeping Arab nations.
The Chinese engagement of the rebels follow a spate of defections by high-profile members of the Libyan government, including senior former prime minister Shokri Ghanem.
The Libyan conflict is deadlocked, with rebels unable to break out of their strongholds and advance towards Tripoli, where Gaddafi appears to be entrenched.
China was never especially close to Gaddafi, but it generally tries to avoid taking firm sides in other countries' domestic conflicts, including in the Middle East.
But about half of China's crude imports last year came from the region, and Chinese companies have a big presence there. Beijing mobilised navy ships and civilian aircraft to help tens of thousands of Chinese workers flee Libya after fighting erupted there earlier this year.
China was among the emerging powers that abstained in March when the United Nations Security Council voted to authorise NATO-led air strikes intended to stop Gaddafi's forces from attacks threatening civilians.
China could have used its veto power as a permanent members of the Council to block the authorisation.
But China also quickly condemned the expansion of those strikes, and since then has repeatedly urged a ceasefire that it says could open the way for a political compromise between the Libyan government and rebels. (Reporting by Chris Buckley, editing by Miral Fahmy)