Key powers have vowed to unlock a billion dollars for hard-pressed Libyan rebels in talks to map out a "post-Kadhafi Libya" as a fresh volley of NATO air strikes rocked the capital early Friday.
Mikhail Margelov, the special envoy of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, meanwhile said Friday he was preparing to visit Tripoli to find a solution to the Libya conflict after meeting the opposition in their Benghazi stronghold.
Libya's former foreign minister, Abdurrahman Shalgam, said the rebel National Transitional Council needed at least $3 billion over the next four months to pay its expenses as it battles to oust Moamer Kadhafi.
In a boost to the opposition, the United States joined Australia and Spain in recognising the NTC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, with pressure mounting on the veteran leader to step down.
"Kadhafi's days are numbered. We are working with our international partners through the UN to plan for the inevitable: a post-Kadhafi Libya," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told talks in Abu Dhabi on Thursday.
"Time is on our side," the chief US diplomat said, adding international military, economic and political pressure was mounting on the Libyan colonel to abandon his four decades in power at the helm of the north African nation.
Clinton was meeting counterparts from NATO and other countries participating in the air strikes against Kadhafi's forces for a third round of Libya talks.
The chief US diplomat said later that "people close to Kadhafi" have been making continuous contacts with many different interlocutors about the "potential for a transition" to a new regime.
"There is not a clear way forward yet," she told a news conference, also referring to the NTC as "the legitimate interlocutor" of the Libyan people.
Clinton offered no direct US financial contribution to the rebels, pledging instead another "$26.5 million to help all the victims of this conflict, including Libyan refugees."
Such money will likely be distributed through relief agencies.
But Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Rome would provide the rebel council with loans and fuel products worth 300 to 400 million euros ($438 million to $584 million).
And his French counterpart, Alain Juppe, said Paris would release 290 million euros ($420.9 million) of frozen Libyan funds for the NTC.
In a sign of the continued pressure on the Kadhafi regime, a fresh wave of NATO air strikes hit the Libyan capital very early Friday, with three strong explosions shaking central Tripoli at around midnight. Other more distant explosions followed.
In the past two days, Tripoli has been targeted by the most intense NATO air raids since the international military campaign began on March 19.
The nominee to be the next US defence secretary Leon Panetta said the sustained economic, diplomatic and military pressure would likely lead Kadhafi to step down.
"I think there are some signs that -- if we continue the pressure, if we stick with it -- that ultimately Kadhafi will step down," Panetta told US lawmakers.
"Frankly, I think there are gains that have been made. We have seen the regime weakened significantly, we have seen the opposition make gains, both in the east and the west."
Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade urged Kadhafi to step down as he became the first head of state to visit the rebels' bastion of Benghazi in eastern Libya.
"I look at you in the eyes... the sooner you go, the better," Wade said.
A member of the NTC said on the sidelines of the Abu Dhabi meeting that an international fund aimed at helping Libya's rebels had "become operational" from Thursday.
A State Department official later told reporters "we have got commitments of something about $300 million that came out of today's meeting," including $180 million from Kuwait and $100 million from Qatar.
In Moscow, envoy Margelov called on Kadhafi to step down, saying the Libyan leader needs to take a "responsible, courageous decision about his future."
"I am now involved in preparations for a Tripoli trip," he told reporters after returning from his visit to rebel-held eastern Libya and Egypt.
Margelov said Medvedev had not ordered him to meet Kadhafi and he instead planned to hold talks with the Libyan prime minister and foreign minister.
He did not give any details on when the trip would take place but said the Russian side was waiting for NATO to arrange a transport corridor so that the visit could go ahead in full security.