Libyan rebels tell Russia to drop talks demand
MOSCOW - A Libyan rebel negotiator told Russia on Monday that Benghazi would never negotiate with strongman Moamer Gathafi and viewed the West's current military intervention as fair.
National Transitional Council (NTC) representative Abdel-Rahman Shalgam also told Moscow the rebels were not interested in seeing a NATO-led ground campaign in Libya -- a comment aimed at easing Russia's main fear about the conflict.
"Gathafi must quit and cease fire," news agencies quoted Shalgam as saying after a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
"We are not going to talk to him," Gathafi's former ally and United Nations envoy told Russia's top diplomat.
He added that the Western air offensive was prescribed by the UN Security Council -- of which Russia is a veto-wielding member -- "and is aimed at protecting the civilian population."
The comments came as a direct response to Russia's repeated demand for the West halt its campaign and give the two sides a chance to hold direct talks.
Monday's meeting came less than a week after Lavrov hosted a close ally of Gathafi and marked the latest effort by Russia to position itself as a mediator in the North Africa conflict.
"We are trying to promote an immediate end to the bloodshed, an immediate end to the military activities," Lavrov before the meeting.
"We are convinced that a ceasefire, reconciliation and dialogue, an agreement ... are unavoidable no matter what. That is how things should end, and the sooner the better."
But Shalgam also addressed Russia's worry that NATO was planning to get involved in a ground operation aimed not only at ousting Gathafi but also at leaving a permanent Western presence in the oil-rich state.
"No, never -- we do not want a Libyan ground operation," said Shalgam.
The delegation from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi had initially been due to arrive in Moscow on May 18 but then delayed the visit for "technical" reasons.
Moscow had hosted a top Gathafi representative a day earlier and was later forced to deny suggestion it was trying to get the two sides to sit down at the negotiating table and thus raise its own sway in the Arab world.
Moscow abstained from a March UN resolution that effectively authorised the use of international force to protect Libya's civilian population from Gathafi's forces.
Russia still recognises the Tripoli government and has repeatedly accused the West of taking sides in the conflict in violation of the UN resolution.