|Refugees on Tunisian Border|
The proposal to send surplus Pentagon equipment, including vehicles, medical supplies, protective vests, binoculars and radios, follows Italy's decision to join Britain and France in sending military advisers to the Libyan opposition and a French pledge to intensify air strikes.
The Libyan government has warned that such moves will further prolong the conflict and "encourage the other side to be more defiant".
The US plan, which must be approved by President Barack Obama, is to send "non-lethal assistance" to the Transitional National Council in Benghazi, the de facto opposition government which has not been recognised by Washington. The dispatch of the surplus US stock does not need approval from Congress.
As Nato air strikes were reported to have hit Libyan government targets near Ajdabiya in the east, and south of Tripoli in the west, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, promised to escalate military action to protect civilians. He told opposition leader Mustafa Abdel-Jalil: "We will intensify the strikes. We will help you."
Rebel fighters have repeatedly appealed to Nato and the international community to step up its bombardment of Libyan government forces and military targets. Nato insists its air strikes have been effective in reducing Gaddafi's military capability, but the action has failed to help the rebels advance.
Rebels in the besieged city of Misrata have also demanded ground troops to protect civilians, but the international community is wary of the political and military risks that such a step would entail.
However, the international force of military advisers grew after Italy said it was sending 10 experts to Benghazi to work alongside the 20 sent by the UK and up to 10 dispatched by France. The teams are expected to assist opposition forces with logistics and organisation but will not train soldiers.
Liam Fox, the UK's defence secretary, said many of the Libyan rebels "have no military experience, they have little understanding of weaponry or military tactics. The best way we can assist them is to give them some technical capabilities in how to organise themselves."
The Libyan regime has insisted it is ready and willing to negotiate a ceasefire which, it says, must include an end to Nato air strikes.
In an interview with the Guardian, the foreign minister, Abdul Ati al-Obeidi, said: "If there is a real ceasefire and these bombs stop, we could have a real dialogue among Libyans. It cannot be done with what is going on now."
It was not true, he said, that the Libyan government was not serious about a ceasefire, as critics have claimed. But, he added, a ceasefire needed a "mutual understanding and a mediator".
In a markedly conciliatory tone, he said a ceasefire could pave the way for a political agreement to end the conflict, which could lead to free elections, supervised by the United Nations, within six months.
Obeidi said discussions within the regime about reform had included "whether the leader [Muammar Gaddafi] should stay and in what role, and whether he should retire". Gaddafi's future has become a pivotal issue between the regime and the opposition, which has demanded his departure.
"Everything will be on the table," said Obeidi. But he warned the international community against setting Gaddafi's departure as a precondition for a deal.
"The US, Britain and France – sometimes those countries contradict themselves. They talk about democracy, but when it comes to Libya, they say he [Gaddafi] should leave. It should be up to the Libyan people. This should not be dictated from any other head of state. It is against the principle of democracy."
The US and most European countries have made it clear that Gaddafi must relinquish power as part of any negotiated settlement to the civil war that has divided Libya and dominated the international diplomatic agenda for two months.
The rebel opposition in the east of the country also insists on Gaddafi's departure as a precondition for peace talks.
Obeidi said that Britain, France "and to a certain extent the US" were discouraging moves towards a peaceful resolution "by continuing bombardment, arming the other side and making them more defiant.
"The more the west gives arms, the more they will plant hatred. We do not want to be another Iraq or Somalia. The west could advise the other side to listen to commonsense and study the peace initiatives."
Fighting continued in Misrata yesterday as aid ships tried to dock to deliver humanitarian supplies and evacuate civilians. Nato planes were reported to be flying over the city, which has been under siege by government forces for two months, but they did not carry out air strikes.
There has also been heavy fighting in the Western Mountains region, close to the Tunisian border, in the last few days. Up to 11,000 people have fled the area, according to UNHCR, the UN agency for refugees.