Gaddafi regime 'ready for talks' on transition of power to rebels
Efforts to find a political solution to the Libyan crisis are intensifying as France, Britain and the US acknowledge that Nato military action alone is unlikely to force to step down.
The UN and western countries are urging formal talks between the Benghazi-based rebels and the Gaddafi regime amid new signs that Tripoli might agree to discuss a transition of power.
Alain Juppé, France's foreign minister, provided the strongest indication yet of optimism about the outcome. "Emissaries are telling us Gaddafi is ready to go, let's talk about it," he said on Tuesday. "The question is no longer about whether Gaddafi goes but when and how."
François Fillon, the French prime minister, told the national assembly that a "political solution is taking shape".
Al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi, Libya's prime minister, told the French daily Le Figaro that the regime was ready to negotiate "unconditionally" as long as action ended. Gaddafi would not be involved in talks, he said, and would "respect the will of the people".
France's defence minister, Gérard Longuet, suggested on Sunday that Gaddafi could remain in Tripoli "in another room in his palace" and Nato could stop its bombing campaign while talks began.
The push for a political solution is being spearheaded by the UN envoy, Abdel-Ilah al-Khatib, who met Mahmoudi in Tripoli at the weekend. Khatib told reporters: "I am urging the parties to increase their focus on working towards a political solution. We would like to see indirect discussions evolve into direct talks."
A key issue was agreeing on a body to manage a transition. It would have to be "all-inclusive and involve representatives from all political and social groups as well as a wide range of factions, regions and tribes." He added, however, that there was a significant gap between the two sides.
President Barack Obama is backing Moscow's mediating efforts in if they lead to Gaddafi stepping down.
Italy, hosting Nato's air operations, added its voice to the chorus on Tuesday. Franco Frattini, the foreign minister, told Algeria's al Khabar newspaper: "We are convinced that the Libyan crisis requires a political solution characterised by an end to fighting; Gaddafi, who lacks all legitimacy, leaving the stage; and the launching of an inclusive democratic process involving all parts of Libyan society."
Western governments admit they are worried about the lack of a decisive blow by Nato, the mounting cost of the campaign and the weakness of the rebel forces, but say they are encouraged by a widening agreement about the desired political outcome.
"There is a consensus on how to end the crisis, which is that Gaddafi has to leave power," Juppé told France Info radio. "That [consensus] was absolutely not a given two or three months ago." Initiatives by the African Union and South have faded away.
"There are indications that people around Gaddafi would envisage a solution that includes him being out of power rather than in," said one diplomat. "We are hearing that from various people but it's not yet set in stone. There is an emerging international consensus around a political track and momentum is building up, but there is no breakthrough."
Libya experts suspect that ideas about Gaddafi stepping down may be being floated without official authorisation to test western reactions.
The approach of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting at the beginning of August, is also adding to pressure to find a way out of the impasse.
Later this week the Libya international contact group meeting in Istanbul is expected to channel more cash to the Transitional National Council and step up efforts for a political settlement.
Nato governments insist there can be no backtracking from the arrest warrant issued for Gaddafi by the international criminal court but continue to hope that he might yet flee to a country such as Zimbabwe, Belarus or Sudan – even though he has always insisted he will stay in Libya.