They are a rebel leadership who meet in secret places in their own stronghold. Some change residences every few days. Others worry that their cellphones are tapped or walk with bodyguards. Their chairman is seldom seen in public: Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi has placed a $400,000 bounty on his head.

“There is a price on the life of all of us,” said Salwa Bugaighis, a lawyer and a senior member of the rebel leadership. “We’re dealing with someone who has a lot of cash. It’s been a difficult time. It still is.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met in Paris on Monday night with a member of Libya’s rebel leadership to assess the group’s intentions and capabilities, and she heard from a movement under siege and desperate for international recognition, assistance and a no-fly zone. Gaddafi’s forces are methodically edging toward Benghazi, where the rebels have created a government-in-waiting known as the National Transitional Council.

Clinton and Libyan council representative Mahmoud Jibril met privately for 45 minutes, discussing how the United States and its allies could help anti-Gaddafi groups withstand an increasingly brutal assault by Libyan troops and planes. The meeting in a central Paris hotel was Clinton’s second with a Libyan opposition figure in less than a week, coming four days after she met with Libya’s former ambassador to the United States, Ali Aujali, who now opposes Gaddafi.

A senior administration official familiar with Monday’s talks said Clinton sought the meeting to “step up the level of U.S. outreach” to an opposition movement that has not been fully understood. Jibril, a representative for external relations for the opposition, impressed U.S. diplomats with his eloquence and support for an inclusive government in Libya, the official said.

Clinton made no promises for U.S. aid. Jibril expressed “a sense of urgency but not a sense of panic,” and he reiterated his call for intervention to prevent attacks on civilians.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the G8 foreign ministers, meeting Monday in Paris, declined to go along with suggestions from France and Britain for a no-fly zone over Libya or other military action to blunt Gaddafi’s offensive. Juppe expressed regret that France’s proposals for such intervention last week went unheeded, saying the gains on the ground by Gaddafi’s military might have been prevented.

“If we had used military force last week to neutralize some runways and the several dozen airplanes at [Gaddafi’s] disposal, maybe the reversal that is happening now to the opposition’s disadvantage would not have taken place,” he said on Europe 1 radio. “What’s going on today shows we missed an opportunity to shift the balance.”

The Libyan council is made up of lawyers and intellectuals who profess ambitions of creating a Libya governed by democratic ideals, possibly altering the face of the Arab world and inspiring more autocratic regimes to fall. But it is also a leadership that is realizing that revolutionary zeal alone will not end Gaddafi’s 41-year rule on a landscape that is increasingly feeling like civil war.

The group includes activists who have fought Gaddafi for decades and recent defectors. At times, the national council doesn’t speak with a unified voice; day-to-day operations seem disorganized, even precarious. They have encouraged legions of enthusiastic but militarily inexperienced young people to fight on the front lines, a decision that has brought tactical setbacks.

Many of the leaders have no political experience, raising questions about their ability to create and run a post-Gaddafi government. In Egypt, deposed president Hosni Mubarak allowed political parties, elections, trade unions, rights groups and a free press that ultimately provided vital political training to his opponents. Gaddafi has muzzled the press and banned independent trade unions, political parties and nongovernmental organizations.

Yet the rebels have effectively run eastern Libya for the past three weeks, devoid of the chaos seen in Tunisia and elsewhere. They have established local councils that run hospitals, collect trash and operate banks, while providing services such as drinking water and electricity. Police patrol streets and direct traffic.

“In every city in eastern Libya, there is security,” said Salwa el-Daghili, a constitutional law professor who is a member of the rebel national council. “Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, there are no political institutions in Libya. So this is a great achievement by the citizens of the revolution.”

Local councils in regions and cities across Libya nominated representatives to the 31-member national council. The names of only 11 members have been made public, for the rest live in areas either controlled by Gaddafi or under attack by his forces.

Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who quit as Libya’s justice minister last month to protest the regime’s suppression of protesters, heads the national council. Since March 9, when Libyan state television reported Gaddafi’s bounty on his head, Jalil has kept a low profile.

His deputy, Abdul Hafidh Ghoga, a prominent lawyer, has been the public face of the council. Ghoga, a former president of the Libyan Bar Association, declared himself the spokesman of a rival interim council but then joined hands with Jalil. Rebel officials say there is no tension between the leaders.

Other national council members include a U.S.-educated political science professor, a well-known youth leader and a relative of Libya’s former monarch who spent 31 years in prison for allegedly participating in a coup attempt against Gaddafi. The council has also tapped experienced diplomats who defected to represent them in Western and Arab capitals.

Ghoga said the council unanimously wants to put in place a democratic, civilian government with a constitution, separation of powers, freedom of the press and assembly, and multiparty elections. “We want a Libya where no one is above the law,” Ghoga said.

The rebel leaders envision a parliamentary rather than a presidential system, largely because there was a parliament under King Idris, whom Gaddafi deposed in a bloodless coup in 1969. Sensitive to comments by Gaddafi that they were linked to al-Qaeda and wanted to create an Islamic emirate, rebel officials stressed that while Islam would be the official religion, a post-Gaddafi government would be secular.

“It will never be an Islamic regime,” Daghili said. “The revolution seeks advancement for both men and women. The women here are well educated. It is far from a Taliban-like state.”

If the rebel council is recognized by the world, the panel could be allowed access to Libyan funds abroad and to the proceeds of oil sales. France last week became the first country to recognize the council as “the legitimate representative of the Libyan people.” Still, it’s unlikely that a post-Gaddafi government will support U.S. policies in the Middle East. Members of the national council said they were opposed to U.S. policies in Israel and the Palestinian territories, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The council has had minor differences and has publicly sent mixed signals, such as over an alleged offer from Gaddafi to negotiate. But prominent Libyan exiles said they held a high level of confidence in the rebel leadership. “It is not a government, it’s not a political party,” said Noman Benotman, a former top Libyan resistance fighter who lives in London. “It is a leadership dealing with a severe crisis. They are doing that well.”

Staff writer Joby Warrick and correspondent Edward Cody in Paris contributed to this report.