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UK stepping up aid to Libya rebels

Foreign Secretary William Hague signalled that the UK is stepping up its help for Libyan rebels tonight after international talks on the crisis.

Amid speculation that opposition forces could be provided with British body armour as well as communications equipment, Mr Hague stressed the Government was only handing over "non-lethal" supplies.

But he appeared give tacit support to more hawkish members of the Nato-led alliance, insisting that the UN resolutions allowed for people to be given "the means to defend the civilian population" under "certain circumstances".

The comments came at a press conference in Doha after the first meeting of the international Contact Group on Libya.

Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini told journalists: "We have to protect civilians. Since we cannot make airstrikes - air to ground - in the streets, in the squares, in the cities, in the populated areas, either we make it possible for these people to defend themselves or we withdraw from our obligations to support defending the population of Libya.

"That is why it is institutionally but also, I think, morally justified, since (Muammar) Gaddafi's change in tactics. He is hiding tanks in streets exactly to make impossible Nato airstrikes to destroy tanks."

Qatar prime minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabor Althani echoed the view that it was permitted to provide Libyans with "certain equipment to defend themselves".

Mr Hague said that reading of the UN resolutions was "consistent with our own interpretation".

"We understand the resolutions to mean that the arms embargo applies to the whole of Libya," he said. "But that in certain circumstances it is possible, consistent with those resolutions, to provide people with the means to defend the civilian population."

However, Mr Hague added: "The UK is not engaged in providing any arms but we are engaged in providing non-lethal assistance."

He said Prime Minister David Cameron, who is holding talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris this evening, would be announcing more details of what the UK will supply to opposition forces.

Mr Hague again defended the decision to let Libyan defector Musa Kusa into Britain last month, and allow him out yesterday to travel to Qatar for the conference.

"He was not invited to this meeting," Mr Hague said. "But by being here in Doha he has been able to engage in these wider discussions."