|Rebels watch the battle area in Al-Qawalish in the Western Mountains of Libya [Reuters]
Representatives of the leading countries in the NATO-led coalition's campaign in Libya are meeting in Istanbul to discuss the conflict amid hopes that rebels could be closer to toppling Muammar Gaddafi from power.
The meeting of the so-called Libya Contact Group, chaired by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, will assess a Turkey-backed political road map to resolve the conflict and discuss further steps to support the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council (TNC), officials said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen are among those attending the meeting.
"Countries are starting to look past Gaddafi. He's going to go, and the meeting can be a useful place to take stock of and prepare for that transition," one senior US official told reporters aboard Clinton's plane before landing in Istanbul.
"That's the way we're thinking about this meeting: trying to see it as a pivot in this process."
Al Jazeera's Barnaby Phillips, reporting from Istanbul, said: "The main focus is ways to get rid of Gaddafi as quickly as possible, and to look at what will come next".
Our correspondent added: "Previous meetings focused more on bolstering NATO's military efforts and aid to civilians".
In a statement on the UK foreign office's website, Foreign Secretary William Hague said, "The military action continues to intensify and the opposition continues to grow in strength.
"At the Contact Group there will be a wider range of representation, including from Africa and the Middle East, than ever before," Hague said. "The Contact Group will bring together over 40 countries and international organisations."
The contact group plans to recognise the Benghazi-based opposition council as the representative of the Libyan people, leaving Muammar Gaddafi no option but to step down, Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said on Friday.
Frattini said the UN Secretary-General's special envoy to Libya, Abdul Elah Al-Khatib, would be authorised to
present terms for Gaddafi to leave power, in a political package that will include a ceasefire to halt fighting in the civil war.
'Beginnings of a functional state'
US officials said Friday's meeting, the fourth such conference since March, would serve to deepen ties with the TNC as it seeks stronger diplomatic and financial support from the international community.
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Kuwait and Qatar have already transferred some $100m to the TNC and other countries have also pledged assistance, but rebel officials say they need more cash fast if they are to assume the full obligations of government.
"We have the beginnings of a functional state here," said Al Jazeera's Anita McNaught, reporting from Benghazi, the eastern rebel stronghold where the TNC is based.
"Cars are on the street and shops are open. But they need money to buy the oil that fuels the power plants. At the moment, they're running on donations."
The US has recognised the TNC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people but has yet to offer full
diplomatic recognition - a step which could eventually unlock Libyan assets frozen in the US.
US officials say they now want more details on exactly what the TNC's strategy will be for guiding the country to democratic elections and broadening its political base beyond its strongholds in eastern Libya.
Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is hoping that a political solution to the conflict could emerge in time for Ramadan, which starts in August.
Davutoglu said the focus was on "on steps for an immediate solution in Libya", a Turkish diplomat said.
Earlier this week, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said emissaries from Gaddafi's government in contact with NATO members had said that Gaddafi was ready to quit, but US officials remain unconvinced.
A British-led team planning post-conflict Libya has recommended that Gaddafi's security forces be left intact in
order to avoid errors made after the Iraq war.
Turkey and the African Union have proposed separate road maps aimed at establishing a ceasefire and moving through stages from Gaddafi quitting power to a democratic transition, and the contact group will seek to agree on a single plan.
The Istanbul conference comes as rebel fighters make gains against Gaddafi loyalists on the ground, supported by a nearly four-month campaign of NATO-led air strikes which the UN Security Council authorised to protect Libyan civilians.
Meanwhile, Gaddafi said in an audio address to his supporters early on Friday: "Prepare to march to the Western Mountains. Men and women, prepare to end this charade and march through Libya in defiance."
He also lashed out at NATO attacks, which Tripoli says has caused the deaths of civilians, including children: "Let the world see the pictures of these children. They are martyrs which you killed with your planes and war ships".
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies