World leaders on Monday welcomed the news that Libyan rebels had entered the capital Tripoli and urged Colonel Muammer Gaddafi to stand down immediately to avoid further bloodshed.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato’s secretary general, said the Libyan people had “suffered tremendously” under Col Gaddafi’s rule for more than four decades. “Now they have a chance for a new beginning. Now is the time for all threats against civilians to stop, as the United Nations Security Council demanded. Now is the time to create a new Libya – a state based on freedom, not fear; democracy, not dictatorship; the will of the many, not the whims of a few.”

A Nato official said the organisation would continue its combat air patrols over Libya until all pro-Gaddafi forces had surrendered or returned to barracks. “We will continue to monitor military units and key facilities, as we have since March, and when we see any threatening moves towards the Libyan people, we will act in accordance with our UN mandate,” said Mr Rasmussen.

The European Union said it was actively planning for a post-Gaddafi Libya and urged the Libyan leader to leave “without further delay”. “We seem to be witnessing the last moments of the Gaddafi regime and we call on Gaddafi to step down without further delay and avoid further bloodshed,” Michael Mann, spokesman for EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, said on Monday. However, the EU said sanctions against Libya would remain in place for the time being.

In the UK, David Cameron pledged to unfreeze Libya’s assets soon, saying it was clear that the regime was in “full retreat”. The prime minister had earlier chaired a meeting of defence and intelligence chiefs to discuss the unfolding situation.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy issued a statement saluting the courage of the Libyan rebels and reiterating France’s full support for their efforts to liberate the country from “the oppression of dictatorship”. He urged Col Gaddafi to renounce power, and to order any forces that remained loyal to him to lay down their arms.

The US White House on Sunday said Libya was “slipping from the grasp of a tyrant” and promised to stay in “close co-ordination” with the National Transitional Council in Benghazi and help the country’s transition to democracy.

China, which has stepped up engagement with Libya’s rebel leaders in recent months, pledged on Monday to respect the will of the Libyan people and expressed the hope for a speedy return to stability. “China is willing to work with the international community to play a positive role in rebuilding Libya,” said Ma Zhaoxu, foreign ministry spokesman.

About half of China’s crude oil imports last year came from the Middle East and North Africa, where Chinese companies have a big presence. Rebel leaders promised last week to honour China’s business contracts in the country and requested China’s help in rebuilding Libya once they ended Col Gaddafi’s rule, Xinhua reported.

Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister who was Gaddafi’s closest western ally until he abruptly backed the rebels in April, urged the Libyan leader to end “useless resistance” to “save his people from further suffering”. He also called on the rebels to avoid reprisals.

His foreign minister, Franco Frattini, said “the new Libyan government will respect all contracts with Italy”, referring to Italian companies involved in Libya, mainly in infrastructure and the energy sector.

The International Criminal Court in The Hague said, meanwhile, that it was in talks with the Libyan transitional government about the surrender of Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, Col Gaddafi’s son, to the court after his capture by Libyan rebels. “We’re discussing his surrender,” Fadi El-Abdallah, spokesman for the court, told Reuters news agency.

The court issued arrest warrants on June 27 for Col Gaddafi, his son Seif and military intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi. The three men are wanted for killing, injuring, arresting and imprisoning hundreds of civilians during antiregime protests that began in February.

Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa’s foreign minister, dismissed reports her country was facilitating Col Gaddafi’s exit from Libya and said that she knew the Libyan leader would not seek asylum in South Africa. She also denied that South Africa had sent aircraft to Libya for Col Gaddafi’s exit and said his current whereabouts were not known. But she said her country would not recognise a rebel government. “As far as we are concerned, if this government falls, there is no government,” Ms Nkoana-Mashabane said.

Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, has been critical of Nato air strikes on Libya, saying the UN resolution authorising intervention had been abused.

The Arab League threw its weight behind Libya's rebels on Monday. "Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby offers his full solidarity with the ongoing efforts under the leadership of the National Transitional Council," the Cairo-based League said.

“This is a historic moment that marks a milestone in the history of the Libyan people. We hope the council's efforts are successful in leading the new phase and protecting the independence, sovereignty and integrity of Libyan lands."

The organisation suspended Libya's membership in February and backed a no-fly zone over Libya patrolled by mostly western powers, but had hitherto stopped short of formal dealings with the rebels.

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