NEW YORK/MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - France said it did not break a U.N. arms embargo by airlifting weapons to Libya's rebels because the arms were needed to defend civilians under threat.

France on Wednesday became the first NATO country to openly acknowledge arming rebels seeking to topple Muammar Gaddafi, who has resisted a three-month-old bombing campaign that has strained alliance and rebel firepower.

The bombing is backed by a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing force to protect civilians but Britain, France and the United States say they will not stop until Gaddafi falls.

Citing unnamed sources, Le Figaro newspaper said France had parachuted rocket launchers, assault rifles, machineguns and anti-tank missiles into the Western Mountains in early June.

A French military spokesman confirmed delivery of arms, prompting some U.N. diplomats to argue that such transfers without the consent of the Security Council's Libya sanctions committee could violate the embargo.

"We decided to provide self-defensive weapons to the civilian populations because we consider that these populations were under threat," French Ambassador to the United Nations Gerard Araud told reporters.

"In exceptional circumstances, we cannot implement paragraph 9 when it's for protecting civilians," Araud said of a section of the U.N. Security Council resolution 1970 from February that imposed a comprehensive arms embargo on Libya.

Resolution 1973 subsequently authorized U.N. member states "to take all necessary measures" to protect civilians in Libya. It also adds "notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970" on the embargo, opening up what some U.S. and European officials say is a loophole allowing them to arm rebels.

In the rebel-held city of Misrata, about 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli, six rockets landed early on Thursday in the Habara district, near the city's oil refinery and port. A Reuters journalist in Misrata said there were no casualties.

NATO said it was not involved in any transfers of weapons to the rebels and France's allies reacted cautiously.

British Minister for International Security Gerald Howarth said he had no criticism of France's actions, but added: "It's not something we shall be doing."

At an Africa Union summit in Equatorial Guinea, AU Commission chief Jean Ping said arms going into Libya could end up in the hands of al Qaeda allies in the region.

"Africa's concern is that weapons that are delivered to one side or another ... are already in the desert and will arm terrorists and fuel trafficking," Ping told reporters.


Gaddafi's officials say the NATO campaign is an act of colonial aggression aimed at stealing Libya's oil. They also dismiss International Criminal Court arrest warrants against Gaddafi and his son for crimes against humanity, saying the court is a tool of the West.

In Vienna, Libyan rebel chief Mahmoud Jibril said it may take years for his forces to resume oil exports. "No, no oil is being sold. A lot of the oil well system was destroyed, especially in the east," he told a news conference.

As the NATO operation extends beyond 90 days, fissures have appeared in the coalition against Gaddafi, with Italy calling for a suspension to the bombing and U.S. officials complaining about the lack of European firepower.

Dutch Defense Minister Hans Hillen warned NATO allies against "mission creep" and forecast more arguments about the campaign if it lasted beyond September.

The rebels' advances have been slow, although they say they have made considerable progress in the past week on the front nearest Tripoli. On Sunday rebels advanced from the mountains southwest of the capital to 80 km (50 miles) from the capital.

Gaddafi's government says NATO bombing has killed more than 700 civilians, although it has not presented evidence of such large numbers of civilian deaths and NATO denies them.

(Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers; Lutfi Abu-Aun in Tripoli and Joseph Nasr in Berlin; Writing by Mark John and Christian Lowe; Editing by Robert Woodward)