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Monday, July 11, 2011

France and US send Libyan rebels conflicting signals about Muammar Qaddafi

A French minister said it was time for Libya’s rebels to negotiate with Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s government, but Washington said it stood firm in its belief that the Libyan leader cannot stay in power.

The diverging messages from two leading members of the Western coalition opposing Colonel Qaddafi hinted at the strain the alliance is under after more than three months of air strikes that have cost billions of dollars and failed to produce the swift outcome its backers had expected.

French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet signaled growing impatience with the progress of the conflict when he said the rebels should negotiate now with Colonel Qaddafi’s government and not wait for his defeat.

The rebels have so far refused to hold talks as long as Colonel Qaddafi is still in power, a stance which before now none of NATO’s major powers has publicly challenged.

“We have asked them to speak to each other,” Mr. Longuet, whose government has until now been among the most hawkish on Libya, said on French television station BFM TV.

“The position of the TNC (rebel Transitional National Council) is very far from other positions. Now, there will be a need to sit around a table,” he said.

Asked if it was possible to hold talks if Colonel Qaddafi had not stepped down, Mr. Longuet said: “He will be in another room in his palace with another title.”

Soon after, the State Department in Washington issued a message that gave no hint of compromise.

“The Libyan people will be the ones to decide how this transition takes place, but we stand firm in our belief that Qaddafi cannot remain in power,” the department said in a written reply to a query.

It also said the United States would continue efforts, as part of the NATO coalition, to protect civilians from attack and said it believed the alliance was helping ratchet up the pressure on Mr. Qaddafi.

Mr. Qaddafi has been defiantly holding on to power in the face of rebel attacks trying to break his 41-year rule, NATO air strikes, economic sanctions and the defections of prominent members of his government.

With no imminent end to the conflict in sight, cracks are emerging inside the NATO alliance. Some member states are balking at the burden on their recession-hit finances, and many are frustrated that there has been no decisive breakthrough.

But even countries that support a political solution have not answered the question of how a deal can be hammered out when the rebels and their Western backers say Colonel Qaddafi must go while the Libyan leader himself says that is not up for negotiation.

Strains over how to proceed in Libya are likely to surface on Friday when the contact group, which brings together the countries allied against Mr. Qaddafi, gathers in Istanbul for its next scheduled meeting.

There was no immediate reaction to the French minister’s comments from the rebel leadership at its headquarters in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.

On the ground, rebel forces trying to march on Tripoli have made modest gains in the past week, but the fighting on Sunday underlined it would a long slog.

Colonel Qaddafi’s forces launched a heavy artillery bombardment to try to push back rebel fighters who last week seized the village of Al Qawalish, about 60 miles south of Tripoli.

Al Qawalish is a strategic battleground because if the rebels manage to advance beyond it they will reach the main highway leading north into the capital, Tripoli.

A rebel fighter in the village, Amignas Shagruni, said that shells had been landing repeatedly over the past 24 hours from pro-Qaddafi forces positioned a few miles to the east.

During a 20-minute period while Reuters visited the frontline east of Al Qawalish at least five shells landed. However, they did not appear to be well targeted, striking random spots in the nearby hills.

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