The French government said Wednesday it would join Britain in sending a small number of military liaison officers to support the ragtag rebel army in Libya, news reports said, offering a diplomatic boost for the insurgent leader Mustafa Abdel-Jalil who planned to meet with President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris.

The French and British decisions to send advisers marked the latest development in the international community's search for a means to break a bloody battlefield deadlock that has killed hundreds in the contested cities of Misurata and Ajdabiya and left the rebels in tenuous control of a few major coastal cities in their campaign against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi

But the moves, likened by some critics to America's decision to send military advisers to Vietnam, raised worries in both countries that their military establishments were being drawn closer into the conflict. The French government spokesman, François Baroin, told reporters on Wednesday that the number of military liaison officers would be small, but did not give details. French government ministers stressed that they do not plan to send ground troops to support the rebels.

William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said on Tuesday that the British advisers would help the makeshift rebel forces "improve their military organizational structures, communications and logistics."

Britain and France - the European nations at the forefront of the diplomatic drive against Colonel Qaddafi - have strived to maintain a united front since they promoted a United Nations Security Council resolution almost five weeks ago authorizing NATO air strikes to protect civilians from loyalist forces.

France's foreign minister, Alain Juppé, told reporters in Paris on Tuesday that he remained "absolutely opposed to a deployment of troops on the ground, " words echoed on Wednesday by the defense minister, Gérard Longuet, who said the Security Council resolution permitting air strikes did not authorize the use of foreign ground forces.

On Wednesday, nonetheless, the satirical and investigative French weekly, Canard Enchaîné, reported that, along with Britain and the United States, France dispatched covert special forces to Libya three weeks to assess the impact of allied airstrikes.

The Libyan government criticized the British decision to send advisers , saying the move would prolong conflict. Instead, Libya's foreign minister, Abdul Ati al-Obeidi, used a BBC interview broadcast on Wednesday to renew the Tripoli authorities' frequent call for a cease-fire and a suspension of NATO bombing to permit a settlement negotiated by Libyans themselves without foreign interference.

"We think any military presence is a step backwards," Mr. Obeidi said, "and we are sure that if this bombing stopped and there is a real cease-fire we could have a dialogue among all Libyans about what they want - democracy, political reform, constitution, election. This could not be done with what is going on now."

President Sarkozy of France met Mr. Abdel-Jalil, formerly Colonel Qaddafi's justice minister, to try to find a means to break the deadlock and, according to a statement from the French presidency, to debate "the process of democratic transition.

The French prime minister, François Fillon, who also planned to meet Mr. Abdel-Jalil, was quoted in news reports as saying France would intensify air strikes "to prevent Qaddafi forces from pursuing their attacks on civilian populations."

"But at the same time, we will need to find a political solution, that is, conditions for a dialogue so that the Libyan crisis can be resolved," he said in Kiev, Ukraine, according to Agence France-Presse.

Libya's state television reported on Wednesday that NATO warplanes had struck telecommunications and broadcasting infrastructure. But it did not say where or when the reported attacks took place.

The Libyan rebel leader held talks on Tuesday in Rome with Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, and urged NATO to increase its airstrikes against Colonel Qaddafi's forces. But, publicly at least, he appeared to have secured no firm commitment of increased military aid similar to Britain's offer.

Italy, France and Qatar are the only countries to formally recognize the rebel administration in the eastern city of Benghazi.

Britain had previously been providing what Mr. Hague described as "nonlethal assistance," in the form of telecommunications equipment and body armor. He maintained that the new deployment fell within the United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the international community to protect Libyan civilians but ruling out an occupation force. The military team will work with British diplomats who are already in Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital, he said.

The officers will be deployed "quickly," said Britain's Defense Ministry, but it declined to provide further details on the timeline or the number of soldiers. The Associated Press reported that there could be as many as 20.

A government official, who did not want to be named as he was not authorized to discuss operational matters, said that though some of the soldiers had special forces backgrounds, they were not directly drawn from Britain's elite Special Air Service and Special Boat Service teams.

The move was cause for concern among some current and former politicians. Sir Menzies Campbell, former leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, which is now part of a governing coalition with the Conservatives, said Tuesday that the advisers "must not be seen as a first installment of further military deployment." He added, "Vietnam began with an American president sending military advisers."

Current members of Parliament have also called for a fresh debate. "This is clear evidence of mission creep," said John Baron, a Conservative member. "Now we are beginning to put military personnel on the ground, something that wasn't even discussed when we debated this issue."

Allied bombing sorties and Tomahawk missiles have failed to tip the balance decisively in favor of a rebel group with disjointed leadership, limited weapons and many inexperienced fighters. And civilian casualties have continued to mount. On Tuesday, the United Nations said that at least 20 children had been killed in the siege of Misurata.

The New York Times

20 April 2011