EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told reporters Wednesday the European Union plans to open an office in the rebel-held Libyan city of Benghazi.

"I intend to open an office in Benghazi so that we can move forward on the support we've discussed to the people... to support civil society, to support the Interim Transitional National Council," Ashton told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

Ashton said EU support would include institution building and security reform.

"We want to help with education, with health care, with security on the borders," Ashton said.

Ashton's reference to borders, when Libya is currently divided between Qaddafi loyalists and rebel fighters, has led some observers to suggest the EU will move to formally recognize the rebel leadership, even if strongman Muamarr Qaddafi remains, effectively balkanizing the war-torn country.

Rebel Gains in Misrata
Rebel fighters in Libya on Wednesday said they drove back government troops on the eastern and western edges of the port city of Misrata, encircling them at the airport. The rebels also said on Tuesday they had taken the town of Zareek, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) west of Misrata.

No independent verification of rebel claims was available.

Misrata, besieged by Qaddafi loyalists for eight weeks, is strategically important to rebel hopes of overthrowing the Libyan leader because it is the only city they hold in the west of the North African country.

NATO launched missile strikes on Tuesday in the Tripoli area. Witnesses said the target's included Qaddafi's compound.

NATO said later it carried out a strike against a government command and control post in the capital.

After two months of bloody revolt the Libyan civil war has ground down to a stalemate. Rebels hold Benghazi and other towns in the oil-producing east while the government controls the capital and almost all of the west.

Thousands have been killed in the fighting in the vast desert country to date.