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U.S. Envoy in Benghazi to Meet Libyan Opposition

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. envoy to the Libyan opposition is in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi for talks with those leading the revolt against Muammar Qaddafi, the State Department said Tuesday.

The envoy, Chris Stevens, is meeting with members of Libya's Transitional National Council to get a better idea of who they are, what they want and what their needs and capabilities are, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. His visit could pave the way for U.S. recognition of the council as Libya's legitimate government, although no decision is imminent, Toner said.

Stevens was the No. 2 official at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli until the mission was shuttered in February amid escalating violence. He will be discussing humanitarian and possible financial assistance to the opposition, Toner said.

Three countries, including NATO allies France and Italy, along with Qatar, have recognized the transitional council as the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people, but the United States has yet to follow suit. The U.S. has also not made a decision on whether to arm the rebels.

Stevens will be encouraging the opposition to make their plans clear and commit to respecting and protecting human rights, Toner said. The administration has thus far welcomed pro-democracy pledges from the transitional council and praised their attempts to include a wide cross-section of Libyan society in their ranks.

He said the U.S. recognizes the financial needs of the council and will be talking with its members about how the international community can assist. Some have argued that the U.S. should free up some of the $30 billion-plus in Libyan assets that it has frozen to help the opposition.

"We are going to look at some ways to enable them to meet some of their financial needs and how we can help to do that through the international community, given the challenge of sanctions," Toner said. "We do recognize they need funds to exist."

The diplomatic moves come as the U.S. military dramatically slashed the number of air and naval forces committed to the operation, which began with airstrikes and the enforcement of a no-fly zone to prevent Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi from using his forces against his own people.

Only three Navy warships and a supply ship remain for the operation, compared with the 11 ships there when the intervention began March 19, two defense officials said Tuesday. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the data.

The warships are the USS Kearsarge, the USS Ponce and the destroyer USS Barry.

Among those no longer participating in the Libya mission are two submarines, the destroyer USS Stout and the Mount Whitney, which had served as a floating command post for the American admiral who was the on-scene commander until NATO took control Thursday.

There are 90 U.S. airplanes still assigned to the Libya mission. A week ago, there were 170, including 70 strike planes, officials said at the time.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, asked whether special operations forces will be used in Libya for training the opposition forces or other missions, said President Barack Obama has been clear that there will be no boots on the ground.

"The no military boots on the ground is very clear, and I don't think it needs elaborating," he said.

Special operations forces, however, have been used in other countries under the authority of U.S. intelligence agencies.

Gen. Carter Ham, the top U.S. commander in Africa, says the airstrikes by the U.S. and its partners on Libya upset some nations on the continent. He told a House panel Tuesday that the reaction to the military action was mixed.

Meanwhile, the Air Force secretary said Tuesday the service has been spending about $4 million a day to keep 50 fighter jets and nearly 40 support aircraft in the Libya conflict, including the cost of munitions.

Secretary Michael Donley told reporters that the Air Force has spent $75 million as of Tuesday morning on the war. He said the U.S. decision to end its combat strike role in the conflict will cut costs, but he could not say by how much.

He said the Air Force has spent close to $50 million on the relief effort for the Japan earthquake, including $40 million to evacuate between 5,000-6,000 U.S. personnel. The total U.S. costs for the Libya air campaign as of March 28 were $550 million, not counting normal deployment spending.

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Associated Press writers Pauline Jelinek, Lolita C. Baldor and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.