US officials hold meeting with Gaddafi regime
Published 19/07/2011 | 08:32
American envoys have met representatives of Col Muammar Gaddafi's regime, a move that will increase speculation that Nato is seeking a deal to end the four-month long conflict.
A United States official said the first acknowledged contact with the regime since the military campaign started was held "to deliver a clear and firm message that the only way to move forward is for Gaddafi to step down".
"This was not a negotiation. It was the delivery of a message. We have no plans to meet again, because the message has been delivered," she said.
The meeting brought together three senior US diplomats, including Jeffrey D. Feltman, the top State Department official in charge of Middle East policy, along with four members of Col Gaddafi's inner circle.
Reports from Libya said the meeting was held on Saturday in Tunisia, the day after the US and others agreed to recognise the rebel Transitional National Council as the country's legitimate rulers.
However, with the Libyan dictator clinging to power despite the near daily air raids by Nato forces, and public opinion about the conflict growing more sceptical, efforts to reach some sort of accommodation with Col Gaddafi have increased.
Alain Juppe, the French foreign minister, citing Libyan government emissaries, has said that Col Gaddafi was prepared to leave power by agreement.
"The Libyan regime is sending messengers everywhere, to Turkey, to New York, to Paris," he said.
Moussa Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Gaddafi regime, said the meeting was a "first step" towards repairing relations between the two countries.
"This is a first step and we want to take further steps. We don't want to be stuck in the past; we want to move forward all the time," he said.
The revelation came as Libyan rebels claimed the capture of Brega, though Gaddafi loyalists said they still held the key coastal city.
Rebels are holding eastern Libya and pockets in the west, but until Monday's assertion that Brega had been taken, had not made decisive moves towards the capital Tripoli, where Col Gaddafi remains entrenched.
After a weekend of vicious street-by-street combat, a rebel spokesman said they had surrounded or taken all parts of the town, except for an area where 150-200 loyalist troops were holding out.
Most regime forces had retreated to the next town along the coast, Ras Lanuf, he said.
It would be the regime's first significant defeat on the eastern front since late March.
The capture of Brega, home to Libya's biggest oil refinery and terminal complex, would be a major strategic and psychological victory for the Libyan opposition.
After the initial thrusts and counterthrusts of the campaign, in which Brega changed hands several times, the main wing of the rebel force has been unable to break west from its outpost in Ajdabiya, south-west of the headquarters in Benghazi.
With the lifting of the government's siege of Misurata and the rebels' slow advance in the south west, the regime is now unequivocally on the back foot for the first time since shortly after the coalition bombardment began in mid-March.
Britain, which has taken a tough line in arguing for more pressure on Col Gaddafi rather than negotiation, will hope that, combined with additional cash promised on Friday at a meeting of the Libya contact group in Istanbul, the military developments will see the regime start to crumble before a deal is reached.
Nato also continued its aerial attacks, destroying the civilian radar base at Tripoli airport, saying it was being used for military purposes.
Shamsiddin Abdulmolah, a rebel spokesman, told journalists that Brega had been mined, but that rebel forces were now pushing west along the coast road towards Ras Lanuf, another refinery town.
Around 15 rebel fighters were killed in the battle, according to reports on the ground. The government said 19 of its troops died in Nato air raids in support of rebel forces.
David Cameron said there was no option but for the embattled Libyan leader to go immediately.
Speaking during his visit to South Africa, he said that a "peaceful transition" was needed.
While his host, President Jacob Zuma, has attacked the coalition bombing campaign and reiterated calls for it to stop to allow negotiations, Mr Cameron said Col Gaddafi still could not be trusted.
"He has occasionally announced a ceasefire but all the time he announces it, he is shelling, maiming, murdering his own citizens. That's why there is a UN resolution," the Prime Minister said at a joint press conference in Pretoria.