BENGHAZI, Libya – In a boost to Libya's rebels, the European Union opened a diplomatic office Sunday in their eastern stronghold and pledged support for a democratic Libya where Moammar Gadhafi "will not be in the picture."
The office in the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi gives Gadhafi's opponents a key point of contact with the 27 nations in the European bloc and adds to the growing international recognition of the rebels' political leadership.
In return, the head of the rebels' National Transitional Council held out the possibility of future rewards for those who offer early support, and he said his nascent administration would respect human rights and international law.
"The United States and the European Union should know that we are a righteous people," said Mustafa Abdul-Jalil. "We are fighting for a better future and they will not regret helping us."
The rebel-held east is home to many of Libya's oil resources, and Abdul-Jalil said backers of the rebel council could stand to benefit in future business deals.
"Our friends who support this revolution will have the best opportunity in future contracts in Libya," he said.
Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa, most of them untapped.
A number of other countries — including France, Italy, Qatar and the West African nation of Gambia — have already recognized the rebels, while the United States and other countries have sent envoys to open talks.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton opened the bloc's office in Benghazi's heavily guarded Tibesti Hotel, saying she looked forward to a better Libya "where Gadhafi will not be in the picture."
"I have seen the vision of the Libyan people today all around. I saw the posters as I came from the airport with the words 'We have a dream,'" she said after meeting with Abdul-Jalil.
In a statement released by her office in Brussels, Ashton said she found that the rebel leaders "have great aspirations for the people of this country and they have the leadership qualities and skills necessary to take the country forward."
She said she discussed EU support in border management, security reform, the economy, health, education and in building civil society.
Ashton did not offer what the rebels say they need most — heavy weapons to match the arsenal of Gadhafi, Libya's leader of more than 40 years, who controls the capital, Tripoli, and most of western Libya.
Gadhafi has responded to the uprising that began in mid-February by unleashing his military and militias against the rebels, who have been aided by NATO bombing runs aimed at maintaining a no-fly zone and at keeping Gadhafi from attacking civilians.
The two sides have been stalemated in recent weeks, with the rebels complaining they cannot defeat Gadhafi's better-equipped army. But no country has sent significant arms. Qatar has sent anti-tank weapons and military trainers, and other countries have sent communications equipment other supplies. None of it has had a noticeable affect on the battlefield.
The rebels have worked hard to win foreign recognition, considering it necessary in fight against Gadhafi and important in rebuilding the country should he fall.
The head of the rebels' executive committee, Mahmoud Jibril, on Sunday estimated the cost of the war damage at $480 billion dollars. In an interview on Al-Jazeera TV, Jibril accused Gadhafi of destroying the country.
"What is happening now is the deliberate destruction of a country's future," he said, mentioning widespread devastation in a number of cities and attacks by government troops on oil infrastructure.
He also said that 230 cases of rape by Gadhafi's soldiers had been reported in the country's east.
Jibril, a U.S.-educated planning expert, said his team is working on a plan to rebuild Libya after the war.
"The international community will participate in it, and it will be under the umbrella of the United Nations," he said.
Rebel forces were able to hold off an advance Sunday by Gadhafi's forces toward a key rebel-held border crossing with Tunisia, a resident of the area said.
The Wazin crossing is an essential lifeline for rebels in Libya's western mountains, allowing them to get food and medical supplies from Tunisia. It has been under frequent attack for weeks, said the resident, who gave only his last name, Jaber, because he feared retribution from Gadhafi's troops.
He said the government troops attacked rebel forces from on top of a nearby mountain before dawn. Two hours of clashes killed one rebel fighter and 15 government troops, he said.
Most EU nations have frozen their relations with Gadhafi's government and withdrawn their diplomats. Hungary, which holds the bloc's rotating presidency, is the only member nation still maintaining a diplomatic mission in Tripoli.
The opening of the diplomatic office came as NATO widened its campaign to weaken Gadhafi's regime with airstrikes on desert command centers and sea patrols to intercept ships.
NATO on Sunday said in Brussels that its aircraft flew 49 strike missions on Saturday. They hit a command-and-control facility near Tripoli, as well as ammunition dumps, air defense radars, and a tank and truck near a rebel-held town in the mountains south of Tripoli.
Early Sunday, NATO raids again targeted the sprawling, heavily fortified Gadhafi compound in the capital, said government spokesman Ibrahim Uthman. The spokesman earlier said a NATO strike hit the port but later said that information was incorrect.
Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Tripoli, Libya, Slobodan Lekic in Brussels and Ben Hubbard in Cairo contributed to this report.