Libya rebels holding talks with Gathafi regime 'for weeks'
PARIS - Libya's rebels have for weeks been holding talks with former senior figures from the regime of strongman Moamer Gathafi in Tripoli, a French writer and supporter of the rebels said Wednesday.
"There have for weeks been political negotiations between the NTC (the rebel National Transitional Council) and the people in Tripoli who have no blood on their hands," Bernard-Henri Levy told Europe 1 radio.
He said the people the rebels were talking to were "former Gathafi lieutenants, technocrats, people who know how to run a state."
Levy helped engineer France’s pathbreaking recognition of Libya’s fledgling rebel authority, a major impetus for the coalition then gathering to back its struggle to overthrow Gathafi.
The rebels, who control the east of the country, have frequently denied having had any direct negotiations with Tripoli.
Libyan rebels said on Tuesday they had punched through to the centre of the western town of Zliten in fierce combat, while claiming to have seized a hit list of their leaders from a sleeper cell in their midst loyal to Gathafi.
"The rebels advanced today inside Zliten to control the centre. Now there is a vicious fight with Gathafi's forces," said Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani, a military spokesman based in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
The fight for Zliten -- which lies just 120 kilometres (75 miles) east of Tripoli -- began shortly after sunrise.
A rebel spokesman said eight fighters had been killed and 30 had been wounded.
The spokesman, who asked not to be named, added that the rebels had killed "many" Gathafi fighters and had captured more -- including an unspecified number of Chadian mercenaries.
In recent weeks Libya's rebels have been slowly advancing on Zliten from their enclave at Misrata, 70 kilometres to the east.
They have been aided by NATO air strikes, which on Monday hit one of Gathafi's command and control centres and a military facility in the town.
Zliten has long been held by Gathafi, and was suspected of being a base for multiple rocket attacks on Misrata that have killed scores of civilians.
In the east, Bani said rebels fought for hours with Gathafi forces at the oil hub of Brega, with a small unit of 45 troops entering the town's eastern residential district.
"There were clashes with Gathafi's forces and it went on four hours and then they had to retreat back," Bani said.
On Monday, rebels said they arrested at least 63 loyalist militiamen in Benghazi in an ongoing bid to tighten security in Benghazi, following an hours-long battle with Gathafi loyalists in the opposition stronghold.
They also uncovered a hit list with the names and addresses of about 60 of their leaders, officials said.
Files with sensitive information about key members of the rebels' political and military leadership were found at the headquarters of a Benghazi-based brigade -- now believed to have been secretly allied to Gathafi's regime.
"There were around 60 people," deputy interior minister Mustafa al-Sagazly said, including "members of the (National Transitional Council), the military council, the cabinet of the NTC executive."
"There were names and addresses," he said. "Some of the addresses were correct."
The list was found during a operation against the Katiba Nida Libya -- or Libya's Call Brigade -- which is suspected of being a pro-Gathafi cell that masqueraded as one of the plethora of loosely linked volunteer units that make up the rebel army.
"They were a very serious threat," said NTC spokesman Shamsiddin Abdulmolah. "They had a camp that was very well armed, with ammunition, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, explosives and enough food supplies for weeks."
"They planned to spread death and destruction across Benghazi."
The group, whose exact number is not known, came under suspicion after being linked to an audacious Benghazi jail break that resulted in the escape of as many as 300 inmates, including some high-value prisoners of war.
Libya's rebels have long feared a "fifth column" operating among them, and those fears reached fever pitch last week with the assassination of the rebel military chief of staff Abdel Fatah Yunis.
Sagazly said Yunis had been on the hit list, but it was not at all clear that Katiba Nida was behind his killing.
But with some members of unit still thought to be at large, even a possible link is being taken seriously. Security details for senior members of the NTC have being reinforced.
In Moscow, meanwhile, a senior Russian official said fighting in Libya had reached a "dead end" that could only be resolved through dialogue and new attempts at negotiation.
"The situation has reached a dead end that confirms that there is no military solution," the head of the foreign ministry's Middle East and North Africa department, Sergei Vershinin, was quoted by Interfax as saying.
"We have to go back to searching for political and diplomatic solutions," he was quoted as saying.
Russia abstained from a vote on a UN Security Council resolution in March that opened the way for air strikes on Gathafi regime targets in Libya but has since criticized the scale and intent of the NATO-led Western campaign.
It has been involved in attempts to mediate between the rebels controlling the east of the country and the Gathafi's regime in Tripoli.
Gathafi, meanwhile, has sent an envoy to Caracas carrying a letter for his ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the Latin American leader said on Monday, without revealing the contents.
Chavez called the rebels "terrorists" and called on other countries to cut ties with the rebel National Transitional Council.
"Not only do we refuse to recognize the pantomime that is the Transitional Council... We say that European and other countries have recognised a group of terrorists... and given them legitimacy," he said.
He went on to say that such recognition "destroys the foundation of international law" because it would pave the way for the elevation of other opposition groups.
The United States, which in June declared the NTC "the legitimate interlocutor" of the Libyan people, said Venezuela should join the international community in pressing Gathafi to step down.
"I would hope (Chavez) urged Gathafi to step down and allow a democratic transition to take place," US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in Washington.