China's foreign minister sought to bolster ties with Libya's rebels on Wednesday, telling the opposition leader that his Transitional National Council represents a growing segment of the Libyan public.

Yang Jiechi's remarks to Mahmoud Jibril on Wednesday were China's strongest endorsement of the council yet, marking an attempt to hedge China's bets over the outcome to the Libyan conflict and dealing a further diplomatic setback to Moammar Gadhafi.

"Since the Transitional National Council was formed, it has become more representative by the day and is becoming an important political force," Yang said, according to a statement issued by the ministry.

"The Chinese side regards it as an 'important dialogue participant,'" he said.

Yang repeated China's stance that both sides in the conflict should stop fighting and negotiate a political settlement. China would not seek to gain from the conflict and regards it as an internal matter to be settled by the Libyan people, he said.

"China hopes that both sides in the conflict will ... truly give peace a chance," Yang said.

Beijing has criticized the NATO bombing campaign in support of the rebels. Yet, recent weeks have seen Beijing engage with the rebels in an indication that China regards a victory for Gadhafi as far from certain.

According to the ministry, Jabril responded to Yang by saying the council appreciated China's "active role" in resolving the crisis. He pledged in future that the council would "take necessary measures to protect Chinese personnel and property in areas under its control" — a reference to China's extensive economic interests in Libya prior to the conflict.

After fighting began, China was forced to evacuate 35,000 of its citizens working in Libya, while China-backed deals such as a half-finished public housing project being built by state-owned contractor China State Construction Engineering Corp., were abruptly put on hold. Other Chinese engineering, telecommunications and energy companies also face massive losses.

Estimates of China's investments in Libya before fighting began run as high as $18 billion.