Muammar Gadaffi
Libyan protesters carry a Kingdom of Libya flag during a rally against Muammar Gaddafi in Benghazi July 1, 2011. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

A senior Chinese diplomat visited the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi and met members of the opposition, state media said Thursday, as Beijing becomes more deeply engaged in the war-torn nation.

Chen Xiaodong, in charge of North African affairs at the foreign ministry, met with officials of the opposition's National Transitional Council (NTC), the official Xinhua news agency said.

China has reiterated its call for a quick political solution to the four-month-long crisis and urged the rebels to hold talks with officials loyal to Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, it said.

The NTC said it was willing to strengthen ties with China and pledged to protect Chinese people and businesses in areas controlled by the rebels, the report added.

Up until recently, China relied on its long-standing policy of non-interference in state domestic affairs to make new friends and gain more influence, especially in the African continent.

Libya However has changed things as the Asian giant stopped short of vetoing the U.N resolution calling for the Nato operation.

While China was at first reluctant to get involved in the conflict and preferred to call for a peaceful end to the uprising, in the last few months, it has taken on a more pro-active role. It has now formally recognised the National Transitional Council as an "important dialogue partner" after talks in the Chinese capital between foreign minister Yang Jiechi and senior rebel leader Mahmud Jibril, and has led talks with the rebels on several occasions.

The country has however opposed the three months long bombardment campaign by Nato and criticised the European stance. By taking a less military focused approach to conflict resolution than its western counterparts, China may win points with Libya and other African countries, as it inscribes itself as a different alternative.

It also is not burdened by the colonialist past that Britain and France, the two leading countries behind the Nato operation, share with the continent and its diplomacy centred approach can cleverly be used to act as a counter argument regarding warnings by other states that the current military action represents colonialist aspirations in Africa.

Beijing's commercial interests in Libya include oil, telecoms and rail projects and its new found interest in conflict resolution outside of the Asian Pacific zone probably stem from the fact that it was forced to evacuate more than 35,000 workers from the North African state when unrest broke out but remained decided to preserve its business and commercial interests.

Meanwhile the conflict on the ground is still on going and on Thursday it was reported that the rebels have advanced a dozen kilometres, seizing a town in another step towards securing a key north-south road that would open the way to the capital, Tripoli.

The rebels wrested the town of al-Qawalish from forces loyal to leader Muammar Gaddafi after a roughly six-hour battle on Wednesday, sources say.

"Gaddafi forces have fled the town and [the rebels] have now gone in on foot to try and make sure that that is the case, to try to clear it, to move house by house and see that in fact the area is clear of Gaddafi forces," Al Jazeera's Jonah Hull reported.

"The capture of the town of al-Qawalish is an important step in that direction," he added. "The overall strategy of these fighters is clearly to reach Tripoli."

While the rebels are now advancing further inland, they are yet to reach Tripoli, the Libyan leader's stronghold.

Upon news that the rebels had forced the Gaddafi forces out of al-Qawalish, their supporters in the rebel-held cities of Misrata and Benghazi staged huge demonstrations to show their support.

Tens of thousands of opposition supporters filled the streets of Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital in the east, holding anti-Gaddafi caricatures and shouting "Go Gaddafi go" and "God is great".

A helicopter, its shiny surface plastered with Libya's monarchy-era tricolour flag, hovered low above the crowd while some fired their AK-47 rifles into the air in jubilation.

A smaller demonstration was also held in Misrata, which broke out of a loyalist siege in May but still endures near-daily rocket attacks.