Diplomacy for Libya as war hits stalemate

No agreement on opening negotiations

The key Western powers involved in the Libyan conflict were throwing their energies Wednesday into negotiating a solution, as the war between government and rebel forces dug deeper into a stalemate.
The United States, France and Britain are reaching out to both the rebels and, indirectly, to officials in Moamer Gathafi's regime, looking for a way to bring them together in talks, officials for both sides said.
Envoys from those countries were in the opposition stronghold of Benghazi holding talks with rebel leaders, and Turkey -- the only Muslim member of NATO -- was maintaining communication with Gathafi's circle.
But there was as yet no agreement on opening negotiations, with both sides imposing conditions.
The rebels were adamant that they would not speak with Gathafi, his sons or his closest aides, opposition spokesman Shamsiddin Abdulmolah said.
"We are open to a negotiated settlement with people other than Gathafi and those around him whose hands have been bloodstained," he said.
But Libya's deputy foreign minister, Khaled Kaim, said that while the regime was willing to look at reforms, no dialogue would happen until the rebels "lay down their arms."
And government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said Monday that there was no way the Libyan leader would resign.
On the ground, the poorly performing rebels are making no headway against Gathafi's better-armed forces, and fighting has bogged down over the past week near Brega, a thinly populated desert town with a strategic oil depot.
The threat of NATO air strikes has kept the regime's fighters from advancing into the rebel city of Ajdabiya, but their mobile artillery can easily push back the insurgents -- as they have already shown several times this week.
However, the deputy commander of the NATO operations over Libya, British Rear Admiral Russell Harding, said in Italy that Gathafi's forces were adapting and "blending in with road traffic" to move around, stymying opportunities for war planes to hit them without causing casualties among non-combattants.
While the rebels have failed to secure weapons or direct military support from the French-British-US coalition, momentum is growing to accept their Transitional National Council as the sole legitimate Libyan administration, supplanting Gathafi's government.
France, Italy and Qatar have all publicly announced recognition of the council.
Abdulmolah said the United States was expected to follow suit imminently, when the US envoy, Chris Stevens, flies back to Washington this week after spending two days examining the council's democratic aspirations.
"The US question I'm sure will be answered today (Wednesday) or tomorrow (Thursday)," he said.
He said he believed the rebel council had "satisfied" Stevens by pledging to arrest any Al-Qaeda members who might try to sway the insurgency, and by adhering to democratic principles including transparent, multi-party elections and a free press.
The spokesman said the council's position on excluding Gathafi or his sons from any peace talks was resolute and expressed clearly to the Western envoys.
He listed several acceptable regime figures who the rebels would be willing to sit down with. They included the head of Libya's supreme court, and a former prime minister, Jadalah Azuz al-Talhi.
No one acceptable has yet been offered for such talks, he said.
Abdulmolah also said he had heard that Gathafi's most prominent son, Seif al-Islam, had been "running the show" for the past two weeks on behalf of Gathafi, who, he said, was rumoured to have "lost it."
There was no confirmation of that from Turkey, which has said it has was in regular telephone contact with Gathafi as it worked to arrange a ceasefire.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said he was to meet the head of Libya's opposition, Mahmud Jibril, in Qatar soon after holding talks with a Gathafi envoy.
Turkish officials have said representatives of the Libyan opposition are also expected in Ankara in the coming days, with the Turkish consulate in Benghazi already in contact with them.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said his government was trying to identify "who we can work with in Tripoli" to reach a negotiated settlement, after acknowledging a military stalemate required "a political solution."
He said he expected a meeting of the new Contact Group on Libya to be held in Qatar, "possibly on April 12 or 13."