EU considers deploying armed force to escort humanitarian aid as airstrikes fail to neutralize Gadhafi's forces

Western nations are inching closer to placing troops on Libyan soil despite threats from Moammar Gadhafi's regime and opposition from France.

The European Union said it was willing to deploy an armed force to escort humanitarian aid, an act Libya's rulers called tantamount to a military operation. Britain said Tuesday it will dispatch senior military officers to advise Libya's opposition forces.

The ground-troop issue arose after Libyan state-run television reported on Tuesday that NATO warplanes launched airstrikes on the capital Tripoli and the city of Sirte. Also Tuesday, a human rights researcher reported renewed attacks by government troops on rebel-held Misrata.

New Western tactics seem to have been spurred by the continued deadlock after two months of fighting between Gadhafi's army and rebel forces. There has also been growing international concern over the fate of besieged Misrata, where NATO has been unable to halt heavy shelling by Gadhafi's forces with airstrikes alone.

To break the battlefield stalemate, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the U.K. will send a team of up to 20 senior military advisers to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi to help organize the country's haphazard opposition forces.

Hague insisted the advisers would not be involved in supplying weapons to the rebels or in assisting their attacks on Gadhafi's forces. He said the advisers would work with British diplomats already cooperating with the National Transitional Council, the political wing of the rebel movement, which has been officially recognized by Italy, France and Qatar.

Britain has already sent non-lethal support, such as 1,000 sets of body armor and 100 satellite phones.

The EU, meanwhile, said it could deploy an armed force to Libya within days to ensure the delivery of humanitarian supplies, said Michael Mann, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Mann said a "concept of operations" has been approved by the European Union's 27 countries, outlining various possible courses of action. But Mann said the details of the operation, including how many people and what equipment would be needed, would await the specifics of any U.N. request.

The EU has no standing army, and the personnel and equipment would have be donated by member countries.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he is "totally hostile to the deployment of troops on the ground."

Juppe made his remarks at a lunch for diplomatic journalists, which was reported on the website of the daily Le Figaro. He was responding to a question over a proposal by the head of the foreign affairs commission in France's lower house to send 200-300 special forces "who wouldn't be ground combat troops" to help designate targets for NATO planes.

Juppe said the rebel forces "can play this role without it being necessary to deploy troops on the ground."

The leader of the rebels' transitional government, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, is scheduled to meet with President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris on Wednesday.

2 cities bombed

Earlier, Libya's state-run Al-Jamahiriya channel reported Tripoli and Sirte "were subject to bombardment by the crusader colonial aggression during the early hours of Tuesday."

It added that NATO also bombarded the al-Habra area in the town of al-Aziziyah.

An Amnesty International researcher, Donatella Rovera, also reported a fresh attack by pro-Gadhafi forces Tuesday on the besieged rebel city of Misrata.

"They were shelling very close by, in the area slightly to the northwest of the center. I just left the hospital; there were casualties coming in," Rovera told Reuters by phone.

NATO said in a statement published on its website Tuesday that it had carried out "deliberate, multiple strikes against command and control facilities" of Gadhafi's regime during the night.

It said this included "communications infrastructure used to coordinate attacks against civilians."

The 32nd Brigade headquarters, six miles south of Tripoli, was also attacked with NATO saying the base had been used "to lead and coordinate military actions against the Libyan civilian population."

Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, the commander of Operation Unified Protector, said the campaign to "degrade" Gadhafi's forces would continue.

Meanwhile, another NATO military official admitted it was proving difficult to neutralize the firepower used by Gadhafi's forces to attack Misrata.

Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola, who is chairman of the alliance's military committee, told reporters in Rome that even though NATO operations have done "quite significant damage" to the Libya regime's heavy weaponry, what Gadhafi has left was "still considerable."

Asked if more NATO air power was needed, Di Paola would only say that any "significantly additional" allied contribution would be welcome.

The United Nations food agency said Tuesday that it had started moving food supplies through a new humanitarian corridor into western Libya for civilians in cities, including Tripoli.

Food for 50,000

A convoy of eight trucks loaded with enough wheat flour and high-energy biscuits to feed nearly 50,000 people for 30 days crossed into Libya from Tunisia Monday, the World Food Program (WFP) said in a statement.

"We managed to open a new humanitarian corridor into western Libya," WFP spokeswoman Emilia Casella told a news briefing.

"WFP is coordinating with all parties to ensure that affected needy civilian population do not go hungry, irrespective of their area's adherence to any of the warring factions," the statement said.

The food will be distributed mainly to women and children in Tripoli, Zintan, Yefrin, Nalut, Mezda, Al Reiba and Al Zawia via the Libyan Red Crescent, it said.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Tuesday that a meeting of Western and Middle Eastern states would be held in Rome next month to seek ways of enabling oil from Libyan rebel areas to be sold on world markets.

U.N. sanctions aimed at Gadhafi's regime have prevented rebels from selling oil to raise funds themselves.

The United States, Britain, France and Qatar are among countries urging the sale of oil from eastern Libya, where the rebels have established their stronghold.

So far, the rebels have only been able to export small quantities of oil with the help of Qatar, which along with France and Italy, was among the first countries to recognize the rebel Provisional Transitional National Council.

Abdul-Jalil thanked Italy for its support and reiterated that a future rebel government would uphold all existing treaties and commercial agreements with foreign partners and he said early supporters would be regarded particularly favorably.

"All future economic agreements will be especially directed towards those who have supported us today and who have been on our side in this delicate phase," he said.

"There will be strong cooperation and friendship with Italy, Qatar, France in the first instance," he said. "After them, will come all our other friends, the United States, Great Britain which have supported us, but each according to how much they have supported us today."

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.