The German government said it supports the Benghazi-based Libyan rebel group, the National Transitional Council, as the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people.

Germany’s foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said: We want a free Libya, in peace and democracy without [Moammar] Gaddafi, during a visit to Benghazi.

At an appearance with the TNC’s foreign minister Ali Issawi, Westerwelle added: We share the same goal: Libya without Gaddafi. The national council is the legitimate representative of the Libyan people.

Abdel Hafez Ghoga, a top TNC official, described Germany’s endorsement, telling Reuters: [Westerwelle] said that he came here to support the Libyan revolution, to support the national council. They believe it is the legitimate representation of the Libyan people. He said clearly ... that the national council is the legitimate representation of the Libyan people. It is a very a big step and we appreciate it.

However, it is not clear of Germany officially “recognizes” the TNC government. In a statement, Westerwelle said Germany will support the rebel council in creating a democratic and constitutional Libya, but did not specifically refer to recognition.

About a dozen states around the world (including five members of the European Union) have recognized the Libyan rebels.

Germany’s move comes despite the fact that it was probably the most prominent Western nation not to support the United Nations’ Security Council resolution which authorized NATO to bomb Gaddafi military targets in order to protect Libyan civilians.

The government of Angela Merkel had come under fire from many quarters (both within Germany and elsewhere) for not joining the NATO military campaign over Libya.

Nonetheless, prior to his departure from Benghazi, Westerwelle again called for Gaddafi to step down.

The people in Libya want a peaceful and free future without Gaddafi. That is also our goal, Westerwelle said in a statement, adding: Germany is a friend and partner of the democratic forces in the country.

Separately, Germany’s International Development Minister Dirk Niebel said in a statement that his country will provide an additional $10 million for emergency and interim aid to Libya.

Meanwhile, after four months of deadly conflict, Gaddafi remains in control of Tripoli and much of the western parts of Libya, despite suffering not only waves of NATO missile attacks, but also defections by former government ministers. The eastern part of the country remains under the rebel’s dominance.