By Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) - Libya's Foreign Minister arrived in China on Tuesday for talks and Beijing said a Chinese diplomat had visited a Libyan rebel stronghold, as China looks to play a more active role in efforts to end fighting over the fate of Muammar Gaddafi's government.
Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi will be in China until Thursday as a "special envoy" for his government, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular news conference, adding that Obeidi would hold talks with the Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.
"Both sides will exchange views on the situation in Libya and (finding) a political solution to Libyan crisis," said Hong.
Before the Libyan envoy's visit, a Chinese diplomat based in Egypt had visited the Libyan rebel base of Benghazi for talks with the National Transitional Council fighting to oust Gaddafi, foreign ministry spokesman Hong said earlier.
China's new moves came days after it 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, adding to signs that Beijing is becoming more active in seeking an end to the fighting.
"China is striving with the entire international community for a political solution to the Libyan crisis," Hong told reporters, when asked if his government wanted to play a mediating role between the warring sides in Libya.
"The Libya issue is major one of concern to every country in the world at the moment, and China urges all sides to cease fire immediately and resolve the Libyan crisis through political channels," he said.
China's diplomacy reflects growing recognition that Gaddafi's days in power appear numbered, and the time left to negotiate an end to fighting could be limited, said Yin Gang, an expert on Arab affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
"China had to open up contact with the rebel forces, because the government in Tripoli will have to fold sooner or later. The United States, France and so on are determined to see that happen," Yin said by telephone.
Any political solution required maintaining contact with both sides, he added.
"Russia and China may be in a position to act as go-betweens and also engage with the other powers," said Yin.
China has bolstered ties with governments in Egypt and Tunisia after their leaders fell from power in uprisings.
The Chinese engagement of the rebels follow a spate of defections by high-profile members of the Libyan government.
The Libyan conflict is deadlocked, with rebels unable to break out of their strongholds and advance toward Tripoli, where Gaddafi appears to be entrenched.
The Chinese diplomat based in Egypt who visited Benghazi also examined humanitarian needs there, said Hong, although he added he was unsure whether Beijing was considering giving aid.
China was never very close to Gaddafi, but generally tries to avoid taking sides in other countries' domestic conflicts.
But about half of China's crude imports last year came from the region, and Chinese companies have a big presence. Beijing mobilized 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 authorized NATO-led air strikes to stop Gaddafi's forces from threatening civilians.
China could have used its veto power as a permanent member. But it also condemned the expansion of those strikes, and has since urged a ceasefire that it says could open the way for a political compromise between the Libyan government and rebels.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Miral Fahmy and Alex Richardson)