WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. envoy has arrived in Benghazi to get to know Libya's opposition and discuss how the United States might help it meet its financial needs, a U.S. official said on Tuesday.
The visit by Chris Stevens, former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, reflects a U.S. effort effort to deepen its contacts with the rebels, who are fighting a civil war against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's forces.
NATO-led air power is now maintaining the balance in Libya, preventing Gaddafi's forces from overrunning the seven-week old revolt but unable for now to hand the rebels outright victory.
While U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has twice met a top representative of the opposition Transitional National Council, the United States has not followed its allies France and Italy in formally recognizing it.
U.S. officials say they are still gathering information about the opposition and its objectives, though they have praised its stated commitments to democracy and human rights.
"He's there to get to know the members of the TNC," said the U.S. official. Stevens will explore what kind of political system the opposition plans to build and how to help it pay its bills given international sanctions on Libya, the official said.
"We recognize the TNC will need funds to keep it going and we are looking at ways in which we can assist," he said, saying the idea was to look at doing so "through the international community given the challenges that sanctions pose."
Stevens also plans to discuss humanitarian assistance for the opposition, he said.
At the Pentagon, Press Secretary Geoff Morrell noted discussions within the U.S. government about the possibility of providing "non-lethal" support for the rebels, including medical supplies or personnel protection vehicles.
Libya is the latest Arab nation this year to witness a popular uprising against an authoritarian leader, following demonstrations that toppled Tunisia's Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali in January and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak in February.
Anti-government protests that began on February 15 descended into civil war after Gaddafi's forces fired on demonstrators. Gaddafi put down uprisings in Libya's west, leaving the east, including Benghazi, and the city of Misrata in rebel hands.