Focus of Libya conflict shifts to Qatar
The focus of the Libyan conflict shifts to the Gulf state of Qatar on Wednesday, with the rebel shadow government being given the chance to address an international contact group.
Libya's former foreign minister Mussa Kussa will be present in Doha, but rebels made it clear he would not be representing them in any way at talks ahead of the meeting.
An African Union peace plan for Libya was in tatters after rebels stuck to their demand that Moamer Gathafi step down and NATO came under pressure to drop more bombs on the strongman's forces.
The Libyan opposition's Transitional National Council will address the contact group, an invitation that marks another step in the armed rebel group's gradual march toward international recognition as an alternative voice for Libya's people.
In London on March 29, the TNC was not permitted to attend the plenary session of an international ministerial conference on the crisis, although its envoys held bilateral talks with several world powers on the sidelines.
But French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said this time, TNC members "will appear before the contact group."
Since London, with Gathafi continuing to defy NATO air strikes and with mounting calls for him to quit, the opposition council has gained support and recognition, notably from France, Italy and Qatar.
Valero said France would welcome the group playing a bigger role at the Wednesday meeting of around 20 countries, at foreign minister level, and international bodies.
Speaking in Doha, rebel spokesman Mahmud Shammam said "we want to move from the de facto recognition of the council to an internationally recognised legitimacy."
The rebels were keen to distance themselves from Kussa, the former foreign minister.
"He's not connected to (the) Transitional National Council in any way or shape," media liaison official Mustafa Gheriani told AFP.
The British Foreign Office said Kussa was leaving Britain to travel to Qatar for talks ahead of the meeting.
The African Union peace plan looked to be dead in the water after rebels dismissed a ceasefire out of hand.
Having managed to secure Gathafi's agreement to a truce, the AU delegation encountered resistance from the rebel leadership in Benghazi, who argued that the initiative was obsolete and insisted Gathafi be forced to quit.
"Due to a political demand set as a precondition by the Transitional National Council to launching urgent talks on the implementation of a truce, it was not possible at this stage to reach an agreement on the key issue of a cessation of hostilities," an AU statement said.
In Benghazi, rebel leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil said the African initiative did not go far enough.
"From the first day the demand of our people has been the ouster of Gathafi and the fall of his regime," he said.
"Gathafi and his sons must leave immediately if they want to be safe... Any initiative that does not include the people's demand, the popular demand, essential demand, we cannot possibly recognise."
The rebels also doubted Gathafi would adhere to a truce.
"The world has seen these offers of ceasefires before and within 15 minutes (Gathafi) starts shooting again," TNC spokesman Shamsiddin Abdulmolah said.
With outgunned rebel forces making little headway in their bid to oust Gathafi's regime, British Foreign Secretary William Hague urged NATO allies to intensify military operations in Libya.
"We must maintain and intensify our efforts in NATO, that is why the United Kingdom has in the last week supplied additional aircraft capable of striking ground targets threatening the civilian population of Libya," Hague said.
"Of course it would be welcome if other countries also do the same," he said in Luxembourg before a meeting of EU foreign ministers. "There is always more to do."
Thousands of lives had been saved thanks to air strikes that were launched by Western powers on March 19. These prevented Gathafi's forces from storming Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, three weeks ago, Hague said.
"A huge amount has been achieved in Libya but clearly there is more to be done," he continued. "Of course, to have any viable, peaceful future for Libya, Colonel Gathafi needs to leave."
His comments came just hours after his French counterpart, Alain Juppe, had said France's NATO allies were not pulling their weight in Libya and their forces should do more to help destroy Gathafi's heavy weaponry.
"NATO must fully play its role, and it is not doing so sufficiently," the minister told France Info radio, adding that France would bring the matter up with EU ministers on Tuesday and with NATO in Berlin on Thursday.
France which, with Britain and the United States, led the drive for air strikes, was sceptical about handing political control of the operation to the Western alliance.
In Washington, the Pentagon said it had no plans to alter its role in the air campaign in Libya, with NATO allies taking the lead in air strikes.
"We're not reassessing whether or not we should stick with the strategy," said press secretary Geoff Morrell.
The US military's ground-attack aircraft remained on standby pending a request from the allied commander of the air operation, officials said.
On the ground, there were reports that rebels and Gathafi forces have again clashed in the mountainous western region around Zintan.
And in Luxembourg, TNC official Ali al-Isawi said Gathafi's troop had killed 10,000 people since the rebellion broke out in mid-February, with another 30,000 wounded and 20,000 missing.
There is no way to independently confirm those figures.
Meanwhile, Gathafi's son, Seif al-Islam, acknowledged that it was time for "new blood" in Libya, but said talk of his father stepping down was "truly ridiculous."
"The Libyan guide (Gathafi) does not want to control everything. He is at an advanced age. We would like to bring a new elite of young people onto the scene to lead the country and direct local affairs," he told France's BFM TV.