China confirmed on Monday that representatives of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi visited in July in a bid to buy arms, news that could further damage Beijing's relations with the new opposition government in Tripoli.
Although China insists no weapons were delivered, a spokesman for the Libyan opposition said there is evidence that Chinese companies shipped weapons through Algeria to Gadhafi's forces after the outbreak of the uprising in violation of a U.N. arms embargo.
Rebel military spokesman Abdel Raham Busim said documentation was still being collected and the new government was considering bringing legal action against Beijing, possibly at the United Nations.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Gadhafi's officials met with representatives from Chinese companies but insisted that no contracts were signed and no weapons were shipped. She said China strictly adheres to a United Nations ban on supplying arms to the toppled regime and backed the role of the U.N. in a post-conflict Libya.
"Chinese companies have not provided military products to Libya in any direct or indirect form," Jiang told reporters at a regular briefing.
Although there was no indication that the government played a role in the contacts, the fact that the meetings were held could deliver a further blow to Beijing's ties with Libya's rebels while reinforcing the belief that China may have been trying to play both sides of the conflict.
Busim said an invoice has been recovered from Libyan government files dating from July that lists $200 million worth of Chinese weapons including pistols, missiles and rocket launchers. He said it wasn't clear whether any of the weapons had been paid for or shipped, but that other evidence shows Chinese weapons were either shipped to Gadhafi's forces via Algeria or taken from Algerian stockpiles that China later resupplied.
He said that had cast a pall over relations with China and called on Beijing to work to repair its image.
"It is not nice to have enemies. Maybe there could be a way that the situation can be resolved, but that will depend more on the Chinese government," Busim said.
China abstained from the U.N. resolution authorizing force against the Gadhafi regime and has yet to formally recognize the opposition National Transitional Council. Although Beijing belatedly opened up contacts with the rebels, it hosted Gadhafi's foreign minister in Beijing at the same time.
China and Russia had earlier questioned whether the supplying of weapons to rebels breached the terms of the U.N. ban. The head of the transitional council has in recent days accused Beijing of holding up the release of frozen Libyan funds held overseas, allegedly in order to first guarantee the safety of billions of dollars in Chinese investments in Libya.
While the NTC has said it will honor contracts made with Gadhafi's government, its officials have indicated they regard China as being in a separate category from the transitional government's strong backers such as France, Britain and the United States.
Asked whether China was obstructing the release of Libyan funds, Jiang said China had no problem in principle with turning them over, but wanted first to ensure there was adequate supervision of their use.
Jalal el-Gallal, a civilian spokesman for the Libyan rebels, said he was aware of the reports of the Gadhafi delegation's visit, but that the new government acknowledged the importance of friendly ties with China, one of five permanent veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council.
"China is a superpower," el-Gallal said. "We have to take that into consideration. We hope they will assist us to succeed. We need the Chinese to be on our side, irrespective of what has taken place."
While Gadhafi obtained weapons from a number of sources, China has built a strong position as provider of small arms to many African nations, including those suffering internal conflict such as Sudan and Zimbabwe. China also sold weapons to both sides in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, apparently with no damage to its relations with their leaders.
The Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail reported last week that Gadhafi's officials negotiated to buy weapons and ammunition from Chinese arms makers China North Industries Corp., China Precision Machinery Import and Export Co., and China Xinxing Import and Export Co. It based the report on discarded Libyan government documents that opposition sources believe are authentic.
Representatives of the Chinese companies either could not be contacted or said no spokesman was available to speak with the media.
Sanctions expert George A. Lopez of the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in the U.S. state of Indiana said the documents reported in the article were worrisome.
"The scope and seriousness of the reported 'arms deal' between the (Gadhafi) government and China should be a matter of deep concern to the Libyan Sanctions Committee, its investigative Panel of Experts and the international community," Lopez said in a statement.
However, Li Weijian, a scholar with Shanghai's Institute of Foreign Studies, said such contacts likely took place without government authorization, adding that Beijing was confident of establishing good relations with the new Libyan government.
"I don't think the relations of the two countries will be affected by the incident and both sides should look to the future," Li said.
Associated Press writer Karin Laub in Tripoli contributed to this report.