US urges Gadhafi to step down
Updated: 2011-07-20 06:51
TRIPOLI - Libyan and US officials have met face-to-face, with Tripoli seeking talks with no preconditions, but Washington saying it delivered the clear message that Muammar Gadhafi must go.
The face-to-face meeting occurred at the weekend as Libyan government forces fought rebels for control of the oil port of Brega, which insurgents said on Monday they now had surrounded in what would be a major boost to their campaign. Tripoli denied this.
The meeting was held "to deliver a clear and firm message that the only way to move forward is for Gadhafi to step down", a US State Department official said.
"This was not a negotiation. It was the delivery of a message." He said no more meetings were planned.
Libya said it welcomed discussions but only without preconditions.
"Any dialogue with the French, Americans, British is welcome," government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim told journalists in Tripoli. "We will discuss everything, but do not condition your peace talks. Let Libyans decide their future."
He said the meeting was in Tunisia on Saturday. The US official said it followed repeated contacts from the Libyan leader's emissaries.
France has also held similar talks with Libyan officials in the Tunisian resort of Djerba, insisting that Gadhafi must go into exile, the BBC reported.
"Clearly the situation is changing. If you had asked me 10 days ago I would have been more cautious," said French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet. "Clearly the situation is moving because Libyans of all origins are absolutely certain that Gadhafi is no longer an option for the future."
He said Gadhafi had to leave soon.
"The countdown has begun ... but I am cautious because Gadhafi is not rational and he could opt for a bunker strategy, taking the whole civilian population of Tripoli hostage."
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declined comment on the Libyan-US meeting, but said the world body was playing a central role in moves to present terms for Gadhafi to quit.
"There are many actors and the United Nations is playing a coordinating role. My special envoy is playing a central coordinating role," Ban told Reuters in Geneva on Tuesday.
Libya's foreign minister is to meet his Russian opposite number in Moscow on Wednesday, Itar-Tass news agency said. The meeting, requested by the Libyans, would be first known visit by a Libyan government official to Moscow since the war began.
Russia has called for Gadhafi to go, but has criticised Western states for recognising the rebel leadership as Libya's legitimate government, saying they were taking sides. Moscow emphasises it is in contact with both rebels and government.
After a long period of stalemate in the desert along the eastern front, the rebels said they had routed most of Gadhafi's troops in Brega to the west, which has an oil refinery and terminal, and encircled the town.
More than 40 people on both sides were reported killed in the fighting since late last week for a city which for months marked the eastern limit of Gadhafi's control.
Rebel spokesman Shamsiddin Abdulmolah said its streets were strewn with landmines, making it hard to secure full control.
"The main body (of Gadhafi's forces) retreated to Ras Lanuf," which lies to the west, he said by telephone from the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
The government denied the claim.
"Our brave soldiers are in Brega in their thousands and control it completely," spokesman Ibrahim said.
He said the government had lost 30 soldiers over five days of fighting, but rebels had lost many times more.
Abdulmolah said 12 rebels were killed and some 300 wounded on Saturday and Sunday. Most rebel forces were now past Brega and heading west.
Brega has changed hands several times in the back-and-forth fighting along Libya's Mediterranean coast since the rebellion began in February.
Libyan TV, in a bid to counter the rebel claims, showed what it said was footage taken on Monday of ordinary life in Brega, with students taking an exam and workers at a natural gas plant.
Gadhafi is refusing to step down despite the rebellion, NATO air strikes and defections of members of his inner circle.
On Saturday - as his envoys met US officials - he called rebels traitors and said he had no plans to leave the country.
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