Tripoli clings to Gathafi as Russia offers to mediate
Libya's regime offered a truce but not the departure of Moamer Gathafi as Tripoli was pounded by NATO air strikes and Russia said it is ready to play a key role in mediating an end to the conflict.
"We have asked the United Nations and the African Union to set a date and specific hours for a ceasefire, to send international observers and take the necessary measures" to end combat, Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmudi said.
African leaders gathered at a Libya-focused summit in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa called Thursday for an end to NATO air strikes to pave the way for a political solution to the north African nation's protracted conflict.
But NATO insisted it would keep up its air raids in Libya until Gathafi's forces stop attacking civilians and until the regime's proposed ceasefire is matched by its actions on the ground.
An AFP reporter said five powerful explosions hit Tripoli late Thursday, rocking an area where embattled Gathafi has his residence.
Fighter jets could be heard over the area before the first blast at around 11:20 pm (2120 GMT), with the four others following minutes apart.
NATO air strikes also targeted the Bab Al-Aziziya district, home to Gathafi, overnight Monday and Tuesday, killing three people and wounding 150, according to the Libyan regime.
Mahmudi, speaking to reporters in Tripoli late Thursday, said previous "ceasefires announced by the regime have not been respected by any of the parties." This time the government wanted "all sides to stop fighting, especially NATO."
He ruled out Gathafi's ouster.
"Moamer Gathafi is in the heart of all Libyans. If he goes, they all go," he said, adding that the leader was "in good health" and operating without any restrictions on his movements.
London-based daily The Independent reported on Thursday that the Libyan premier was sending international leaders a message proposing an immediate UN-monitored ceasefire in Libya.
According to a letter seen by the newspaper, Gathafi's regime was ready to enter unconditional talks with rebels, declare an amnesty for both sides and draft a new constitution.
The Spanish government confirmed it had received a message to that effect.
A NATO official, however, said the western alliance had received no such request and noted that the Gathafi regime had made "similar statements" before, only to continue its attacks on civilians.
"NATO will keep up the pressure on the regime until these steps are implemented in a credible, verifiable and sustained way," he said.
Russia, meanwhile, said it had been contacted by Mahmudi seeking to negotiate a deal, and had been asked by Western G8 partners to pursue contacts with the regime to seek to resolve the conflict.
Western officials said Moscow had not been formally asked to mediate, but a White House spokesman said US President Barack Obama had discussed maintaining contacts with Tripoli with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev.
Britain confirmed it would deploy Apache helicopter gunships in Libya, saying the change in tactics would give a final push to the regime of an increasingly "paranoid" Gathafi.
The announcement during the G8 summit of rich nations in the French resort of Deauville came after days of reports that Britain would join France in sending choppers to join the stalled NATO campaign against Gathafi's forces.
"Ministers have given clearance in principle to use Apaches," said a British government official at the summit, asking not to be named. "They will become a capable asset at NATO's disposal."
Britain will operate four of the heavily armed helicopters from the HMS Ocean, a helicopter carrier that will be based off the coast of the North African country, added a British government source.
France and Britain between them account for the majority of air strikes carried out by coalition forces against Gathafi's troops under the terms of a UN Security Council resolution adopted in March to protect civilians.
NATO claims it has seriously degraded Gathafi's military machine with air strikes from high-flying combat jets, but helicopters would help the alliance strike regime assets hidden in urban areas.
In Brussels on Thursday, Libya's ambassador to the European Union, Hadeiba Hadi, said he was defecting along with all his staff.
"After more than four months of the blood-letting of our people, my colleagues and myself at the Libyan popular bureau in Brussels find ourselves obliged to announce our decision to no longer represent the regime," he said in a statement. Lawmakers bar US ground troops from Libya
The US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Thursday to bar US forces and private contractors from operating on the ground in Libya, where rebels are fighting to oust Gathafi.
The measure, passed in a 416-5 vote, was an amendment to a $690 defense bill that also limits President Barack Obama's authority on handling terror suspects and reducing the US nuclear weapons stockpile under the new START treaty with Russia.
The amendment barred the Obama administration from using funds being approved in the overall defense bill to "deploy, establish or maintain" US ground forces in Libya except to rescue a US service member from "imminent danger."
Another approved measure "would clarify that the United States Congress has not authorized military actions in Libya," reflecting lawmakers' complaints that Obama had violated the 1973 War Powers Resolution by not obtaining congressional approval for US military operations there.
Under the federal law, a president has a 60-day limit to send troops into combat without congressional approval. But the Obama administration maintains that permission was not required for a NATO support mission.
Previous administrations have ignored the law, and both the president and the authors of the resolution maintain that the congressional green light is not necessary for "limited" military operations like the Libyan intervention. Anti-war Congressman Dennis Kucinich said the votes indicated "growing" opposition to the now NATO-led air war in Libya, which the Pentagon says will cost the United States an estimated $750 million by the end of September.
"Congress is not satisfied with the blank check that this administration has written for itself to conduct the Libyan war," said the Ohio Democrat, who has proposed a resolution due to be debated next week that directs Obama to withdraw all US forces from the fight.
"Congress has drawn a line in the sand. We will not stand for mission creep that puts boots on the ground in Libya. Further attempts to expand the Libyan war will not be tolerated."
The United States has played a supporting role in the NATO-led campaign since April 1, providing refueling tankers, surveillance aircraft and munitions but not fighter jets.
Starting on April 21, the United States also contributed two unmanned Predator drones to join in air strikes against Gathafi's regime.
The Pentagon has also acknowledged for the first time that it was supplying NATO allies with ammunition and spare parts.