China said Friday one of its envoys met with a Libyan rebel leader in what could signal Beijing's change of tactics on the conflict after staying on the sidelines and avoiding criticism of Libya's dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
The meeting between the head of Libya's rebel council and China's ambassador to Qatar took place in the Qatari capital, Doha, and was the first known contact between the sides. The ministry said in a statement that Beijing remained hopeful that Libyans themselves could find a political solution to the conflict.
Beijing abstained in the United Nations Security Council vote authorizing the use of force against Libyan government loyalists and has repeatedly criticized the NATO bombing campaign in support of the rebels. China has studiously avoided joining international calls for Gadhafi to step down, saying that was for the Libyan people to decide.
The ministry's two-sentence statement said Zhang Zhiliang exchanged views on the Libyan situation with the chairman of the rebels' National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, but didn't say when the meeting took place or give details.
"China's position on the Libyan question is clear _ we hope the Libyan crisis achieves a political resolution and hold the view that Libya's future should be determined by the Libyan people," the statement said.
Chinese diplomats are not known to have met with the Libyan rebels before, and the statement did not say why they were doing so now. Beijing has stayed on the sidelines of the conflict after sending military planes and a warship to help rescue the more than 30,000 Chinese workers in Libya stranded by the fighting.
However, with the conflict showing no sign of ending soon, it is only prudent for Beijing to make contact with the rebels, said He Wenping, director of the Institute of West Asia and African Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"As the situation develops in Libya, China should start to make contact with the opposition side. The meeting shows that China wants to get to know them better, but that's still a far cry from recognizing them diplomatically," He said.
The meeting takes on greater significance following an offer to negotiate between the rebels and Gadhafi's forces from Russia, which joined China in abstaining at the U.N. and has also been critical of the bombing campaign.
On a visit to Rome, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said again Thursday that the Kremlin stood ready to do whatever it can to solve the crisis in Libya through negotiations rather than military action. Medvedev said Russia will send an envoy to Tripoli and the main rebel-held town of Benghazi as part of efforts to mediate a solution.
Associated Press researchers Zhao Liang and Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.