THE Libyan regime has opened direct negotiations with the opposition for the first time, it was claimed yesterday, as NATO bombs hit new sites in the capital Tripoli.
The surprise announcement came as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's son Saif-al Islam also said the best way to end the bloody four-month crisis was to hold elections later this year.
Mikhail Margelov, the personal envoy of Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, said discussions were held in Paris on Wednesday between representatives of the Tripoli government and the Benghazi-based rebels.
He said he had been told of the "direct contacts" by Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, Libya's prime minister, at a meeting in Tripoli. He did not give further details.
The talks, which would breach rebel demands that Gaddafi stand down before negotiations begin, were not confirmed by the opposition Transitional National Council.
"I was assured that direct contacts between Benghazi and Tripoli have been established," Mr Margelov was quoted as saying by Itar-Tass news agency.
The chances of a breakthrough remain bleak. Mr Mahmoudi continued to insist that Gaddafi would not leave the country, as the rebels and NATO insist. Saif al-Islam, once seen as his father's heir apparent, suggested holding a vote as a way to end the crisis.
"Elections, immediately and with international supervision. It's the only painless way to break out of the impasse in Libya," he told the Italian newspaper 'Corriere della Sera'.
He said his father would step down if he lost, but also that he would not leave the country.
The US State Department dismissed the proposal.
The Gaddafi regime has been under intense pressure in recent days. Rebel forces have taken a number of towns and villages in mountains less than 100 miles to the south-west of Tripoli and have moved close to the loyalist stronghold of Zlitan.
But the rebels are also showing signs of strain. An official in Misurata said the city would run out of fuel in two weeks. (© Daily Telegraph, London)