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China says Libya rebel chief to visit

BEIJING (Reuters) - The head of the Libyan rebel group leading the fight to oust Muammar Gaddafi will visit China, Beijing said on Monday in another step in its efforts to expand ties with opposition forces in the war-divided north African country.

The leader of the Libyan rebels' National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, will visit China for two days from Tuesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a single sentence statement on its website (www.mfa.gov.cn).

China has not taken a firm side in the war between Gaddafi's forces and the opposition groups now encroaching on the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and has said its recent meetings with Libyan government and rebel representatives are part of an effort to encourage a ceasefire and negotiated end to the war.

But courting the rebels so openly has marked a policy adjustment for China, which while never a close ally of Gaddafi, generally avoids wading into other nations' domestic conflicts.

Beijing this month hosted Libya's Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi, and China said its door was also open to rebel National Transitional Council.

Libyan rebels and pro-Gaddafi forces exchanged heavy artillery fire near the western city of Zlitan on Friday as the rebels tried to push into government-held territory east of the capital.

NATO has been pounding targets in Libya for months in what it says is an operation to protect civilians who rebelled against Gaddafi's 41-year rule.

Around half of China's crude oil imports last year came from the Middle East and north Africa 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.

China was among the emerging powers that abstained in March when the United Nations Security Council authorised the NATO-led air strikes against Gaddafi's forces. China could have used its veto power as a permanent member.

But Beijing quickly condemned the expansion of the strikes, and has since urged a ceasefire it says could open the way for compromise between the Libyan government and rebels.

(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa)

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