BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Four members of Libya's national soccer team and 13 other football figures have defected to rebels in a blow to Muammar Gaddafi's government, the rebel authority in eastern Libya said on Saturday.
Gaddafi has faced a string of defections by officers and diplomats but has resisted efforts by rebels backed by a NATO bombing campaign to dislodge him after four decades in power.
Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, vice chairman of the rebel council, said the footballers had been in touch with the insurgent leadership in Benghazi and were staying in neighbouring Tunisia.
"It's a direct reflection of opinions and feelings of all people across Libya. These 17 members were on their way to Mali when they declared their defection," he said.
"This is not just symbolic but it's also very important. It (shows) that whenever a person is able to set themselves free and announce their defection, they do so. There are many of those who are not able to do that."
National goalkeeper Juma Gtat and Adel bin Issa, the coach of Tripoli's top club al-Ahly, announced the defections in the rebel-held Nafusa Mountains in western Libya, the BBC reported.
"I am telling Colonel Gaddafi to leave us alone and allow us to create a free Libya," it quoted Gtat as saying at a hotel in the town of Jadu. "In fact I wish he would leave this life altogether."
Bin Issa told the BBC he had chosen to come to the Western Mountains "to send a message that Libya should be unified and free," adding: "I hope to wake up one morning to find that Gaddafi is no longer there."
(Reporting by Maria Golovnina in Benghazi and Alistair Lyon in London)