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McCain urges aid for Libyan rebels

Sen. John McCain called for increased military support for Libya's rebels Friday, including weapons, training and stepped-up airstrikes, in a full-throated endorsement of the opposition in its fight to oust Moammar Gadhafi.

In the Libyan capital of Tripoli, meanwhile, a senior official said government troops would step back and allow local armed tribesmen to deal with rebels in the besieged city of Misrata.

The action came a day after the United States began flying armed drones to bolster NATO airstrikes. Having the tribesmen take up the fight could make it harder for the Predators to distinguish them from Misrata's civilians or the rebels.

At a news conference in the rebels' stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya, McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the United States and other nations should recognize the opposition's political leadership as the "legitimate voice of the Libyan people."

The White House disagreed, saying it was for the Libyan people to decide who their leaders are.

McCain said he did not believe that the United States should send in ground troops, but it should be much more involved in the air campaign and "facilitate" the arming and training of the rebels -- much as it armed the mujahedeen who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

"We need to urgently step up the NATO air campaign to protect Libyan civilians, especially in Misrata," he said. "We desperately need more close air support and strike assets."

McCain is the highest profile U.S. visitor to meet with the rebels.

Rebels in the western city of Misrata raised their tricolor flag atop an eight-story building in celebration after driving pro-government snipers out of the structure Thursday. The battle-scarred building commands a strategic view of the central part of Libya's third-largest city and the key main thoroughfare of Tripoli Street. The snipers had terrorized residents and pinned down rebel fighters.

Although there was less fear about snipers, fighting was still taking place near Misrata's central hospital and the vegetable market, a rebel said.