TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) -- Tunisia's Foreign Ministry has recognized the Libyan rebels' National Transitional Council as the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people, the official Tunisian TAP news agency reported Saturday.
The move represents a major shift in policy for Libya's neighbor to the west, which has remained neutral throughout the monthslong civil conflict that has seen rebels attempt to oust long-standing leader Moammar Gadhafi.
France and Italy were among the first nations to recognize the Benghazi-based NTC as the Libyan government, and the United States has also done so.
The NATO-supported rebels have steadily gained ground and are closing in on the capital, Tripoli.
Meanwhile on Saturday, TAP also reported Gadhafi's former No. 2 left the Tunisian island of Djerba for Italy after apparently defecting.
Abdel-Salam Jalloud's flight took off from the Djerba airport early Saturday, the report said, without providing any details. Rebels attempting to oust Gadhafi have said Jalloud has defected.
Jalloud helped Gadhafi stage the 1969 coup that propelled him to power. He was Gadhafi's most trusted deputy for two decades and the regime's No. 2 official but began to clash with the leader in the 1990s.
The TAP report added that another top Libyan official, Oil Minister Omrane Boukraa, has not returned to Libya following a mission to Italy. He was expected to return home on Thursday.