Shelling by forces loyal to Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi killed 11 people and wounded dozens more -- the majority civilians -- around the besieged rebel enclave of Misrata on Tuesday, insurgents said.
"Eleven people were killed and 57 wounded, almost all of them civilians," a rebel source told AFP by telephone from Misrata, 200 kilometres (120 miles) east of Tripoli.
The attacks marked another bloody milestone for a city that has been shelled almost continuously since March.
While rebel forces and NATO bombing have cleared Kadhafi troops from Misrata, the allies have failed to push loyalist forces beyond striking distance of the city.
As projectiles rained down from the air, on the ground skirmishes continued. Sources said five rebels were killed in fighting at the western entrance to the city earlier in the day.
Across the Gulf of Sirte, on the eastern front line, a rebel representative said nine Kadhafi soldiers were captured between Ajdabiya and Brega.
Yet despite the activity there was little sign of an anti-Kadhafi offensive toward Tripoli, which a rebel colonel had predicted would come by Monday.
French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet cautioned against the rebels' chances of defeating Kadhafi and pushing toward the capital.
They have a "growing capacity to organise politically and militarily" but are "currently not in a stabilised, centralised system," he said.
But, he added, the rebels were no longer in need of controversial French weapons drops.
"There is emerging a political order distinct from that of Tripoli," Longuet said. "The (rebel) territories are organising their autonomy... That is why the parachute drops are no longer necessary."
Amid the uneasy military stalemate, diplomatic chatter continued about a possible negotiated solution to the conflict although no proposal appears to have gained much traction so far.
An unnamed senior Russian official was quoted Tuesday as saying Kadhafi would consider stepping down -- an offer that, if realised, would meet the rebels' central demand.
"The colonel is sending signals that he is ready to cede power in exchange for security guarantees," the respected business daily Kommersant quoted the official as saying.
The Russian source added that France appeared the country most willing to play a part by unfreezing some of the Kadhafi family's accounts and promising to help him avoid trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The rebels have thus far rejected any deal that would leave Kadhafi in power.
"There is no escape clause for Kadhafi -- he must be removed from power and face justice," National Transitional Council chief Mustafa Mohammed Abdel Jalil said earlier this week.
Meanwhile preparations were underway for a international meeting on Libya in Istanbul on July 15-16. NTC foreign affairs point man Mahmud Jibril held talks with his Turkish and Emerati counterparts on Tuesday.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country is NATO's sole Muslim-majority member and an influential regional player, has called on Kadhafi to cede power and leave Libya.
The July 15-16 meeting comes as diplomats increasingly mull what post-Kadhafi Libya might look like, with many hoping to avoid Iraq or Afghanistan-style chaos.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Tuesday said the alliance would like to see the United Nations assume the leading role in Libya's transition to democracy in the event Kadhafi leaves power.
Speaking in Saint Petersburg, Rasmussen said "to accommodate the legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people, it is necessary that Kadhafi leaves power.
"After that, it is necessary to ensure a transition to democracy... We want the United Nations to take the lead in this effort."
One of the new elements in the road map agreed by the AU on Friday included provisions for a multinational peacekeeping force organised by the United Nations.
Rasmussen was to meet Libyan opposition members in Brussels next week, an alliance diplomat said Tuesday, their first invitation to NATO headquarters.
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