BENGHAZI, Libya – The European Union established formal diplomatic contact with the opposition seeking to topple Moammar Gadhafi on Sunday by opening an office in the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi and promised support for a democratic Libya.
It was part of growing international recognition of the rebels' political leadership in Benghazi, the city at the center of the eastern region they have pulled from Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi's control. 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 arrived Sunday to open the office and promised support "long into the future" for a democratic Libya.
"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 Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, chairman of the rebels' civilian National Transitional Council.
In a statement, she said she had discussed European support in border management, security reform, 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 agreed to send arms.
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.
Uthman said the strike wounded five people. He said it was aimed at an old administrative building in the sprawling Gadhafi compound.
Reporters, who cannot move about freely in Tripoli and must be accompanied by government minders, were not taken to see the compound after the bombing.
Meanwhile, there were signs of growing public anger over fuel shortages in government-held territory.
In the coastal town of Zawiya on Saturday, crowds apparently outraged by dwindling fuel supplies tried to stab reporters in a minibus on a state-supervised trip to the Tunisian border.
The journalists — a Chinese news correspondent and two Britons: a BBC technician and a Reuters video producer — were not harmed in the attack, the first of its kind targeting foreign reporters covering the Libyan conflict.
The assailants also attacked the government official accompanying the reporters — once unimaginable in Libya and a sign of the growing frustrations of residents struggling to cope with rising food prices and gasoline shortages.
In overnight fighting southwest of Benghazi, two rebels were killed and 12 wounded in a firefight with Gadhafi forces at New Brega, a residential area outside the oil town of Brega, Dr. Suleiman Refadi told the AP.
Refadi, a surgeon who volunteers on the front line, said Gadhafi's fighters suffered deaths and injuries but he could not say how many. He said the rebels had attacked from six directions in a bid to outflank the enemy.
They destroyed two vehicles mounted with heavy weapons and captured three, Refadi said.
Brega has changed hands several times since the revolt against Gadhafi began three months ago.
Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Tripoli, Libya, Slobodan Lekic in Brussels and Ben Hubbard in Cairo contributed to this report.