(Adds details throughout)
By Chris Buckley
BEIJING, June 9 (Reuters) - China said on Thursday it would welcome a visit by Libyan rebels seeking to oust leader Muammar Gaddafi, a fresh sign Beijing is courting opposition forces fighting for power in the north African country.
Beijing this week hosted Libya’s Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi, and Chen Xiaodong of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Beijing’s door was also open to National Transitional Council, the main rebel group at war with Gaddafi. [ID:nL3E7H81G1]
"China is willing to continue engaging with all the relevant parties, including the Libyan National Transitional Council," said Chen, the foreign ministry's director-general for west Asian and north African affairs, according to China Radio International's website gb.cri.cn.</A1 >
“We’re also willing to host representatives from the Council in a visit to China in the near future,” he added.
Opening its door to the rebels is a policy shift for China, which was never a close ally of Gaddafi, but generally tries to avoid taking sides in other countries’ domestic conflicts.
Around half of China’s crude oil imports last year came from the region, where Chinese companies have a big presence. Beijing mobilised navy ships and civilian aircraft to help tens of thousands of Chinese workers flee Libya earlier this year.
Western and Arab nations meet in Abu Dhabi on Thursday to focus on what one U.S. official has called the “end-game” for Gaddafi as NATO intensifies air raids on Tripoli. [ID:nLDE7572HC]
The Transitional National Council and its Western supporters have rejected Libyan government ceasefire offers that do not include Gaddafi’s departure, saying he and his family must relinquish power before any talks can begin.
Chen said Beijing wanted to encourage a political compromise to avoid even worse destruction and bloodshed.
“China believes that all sides should implement a cease-fire as soon as possible, and avoid causing an even worse humanitarian disaster,” he said, according to the news report.
The warring sides in Libya should “adopt a flexible and practical attitude, and show maximum sincerity in opening up substantive contacts as quickly as they can,” he added.
A Chinese diplomat based in Egypt visited the Libyan rebel base in Benghazi for talks with the Council, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said earlier this week.
Last week, China said its ambassador in Qatar had met Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the rebel’s de facto political leader, in its first confirmed contact with anti-Gaddafi forces.
The Chinese engagement with the rebels also follows a spate of defections by high-profile members of the Libyan government, under sustained pressure from NATO bombing.
China was among the emerging powers that abstained in March when the United Nations Security Council authorised NATO-led air strikes to stop Gaddafi’s forces from threatening civilians.
China could have used its veto power as a permanent member.
Still, it condemned the expansion of the strikes, and has since urged a ceasefire that it says could open the way for a political compromise between the Libyan government and rebels. (Editing by Daniel Magnowski)