Tuesday, July 12, 2011

France says Libya political solution taking shape

TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Emissaries from Libya's Muammar Gaddafi have been in contact with NATO members to say he is ready to leave power, France's government said on Tuesday, the latest sign of a possible negotiated end to the crisis.
"A political solution is more than ever indispensable and is beginning to take shape," French Prime Minister Francois Fillontold a parliamentary commission which is expected to vote later on whether to extend France's military operations in Libya.
NATO powers have until now been focused firmly on airstrikes and backing the rebels trying to overthrow Gaddafi, but five months into the insurrection and with no sign of a breakthrough, attention is switching to a political solution.
Earlier, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe had said emissaries from Gaddafi's government were in contact with several NATO members, though he said there were no fully-fledged negotiations yet.
"Emissaries are telling us Gaddafi is ready to go, let's talk about it," Juppe said, adding the emissaries said they were coming in the name of Gaddafi.
"The question is no longer about whether Gaddafi goes but when and how," Juppe said.
"Everybody is in contact with everybody. The Libyan regime is sending messengers everywhere, to Turkey, New York, Paris," Juppe said on France Info state radio. "There are contacts but it's not a negotiation proper at this stage."
How reliable the information from the emissaries is remains unclear. Many observers warn of the need to be cautious about taking everything emanating from the Libyan government at face value because previous peace offers have come to nothing.
Sources say the envoys are close aides to Gaddafi who are in contact with intermediaries who report directly to Sarkozy.
It was not obvious how Gaddafi, who has refused to even contemplate relinquishing power, could be persuaded to change his mind through negotiations.
Some analysts say Gaddafi will only step down if he is left with no other options, but appeals for negotiations could be seen in Tripoli as a sign the West's resolve is weakening, and encourage Gaddafi to hold on longer.
Karim Bitar, a Middle East expert at Paris-based think tank IRIS, said negotiations between the rebels and the Gaddafi camp were likely to be extremely complicated.
"It's not a country where power is easily shared. There are 6 million people, a few powerful tribes and oil reserves almost all in just one area, so it won't be easy to find a sort of an agreement where Gaddafi is on the sidelines and cedes power."
In an interview with French daily Le Figaro on Tuesday the Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi said Tripoli was ready to "negotiate without conditions" but the bombing must stop first. "You don't create democracy under bombs," he said.
Asked if Gaddafi could be excluded from a political solution, Mahmoudi suggested he could stand aside. "(He) will not intervene in discussions," he said. "He is ready to respect the decision of the people."
France spearheaded the West's military intervention in Libya but is growing impatient with its lack of. President Nicolas Sarkozy took a gamble by taking a personal role in supporting the opposition rebels, but is now anxious to avoid costly military operations running into the start of campaigning for the April 2012 presidential election.
Libya's rebels are still focused on forcing Gaddafi from power. A senior official with the rebel council said he believed the Libyan leader would be gone by the start of August, and he predicted a military breakthrough against Gaddafi's forces within the next 48 hours.
Western officials talking about a possible deal are making references to a plan drawn up by the African Union. That plan allows for a ceasefire, access for humanitarian aid and the launch of a dialogue about Libya's future.
After a summit earlier this month, African Union leaders said Gaddafi's administration had agreed he would not take part in the negotiating process, but it was not clear if that also meant there would be no future role for him.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who is visiting Libya's neighbor Algeria on Tuesday, added his voice to the calls for a negotiated deal.
"We stress the need for a ceasefire and dialogue in Libya with the exclusion of Gaddafi and his family, who must leave power," Frattini told a news conference in Algiers.
Frattini said the chaos inside Libya was being exploited by Islamist extremists based in the Sahara desert to acquire weapons, becoming the first senior Western official to acknowledge that publicly.
Countries in the region and elsewhere are already worried a prolonged war will boost al Qaeda's north African branch, and supporters of a swift peace deal for Libya are likely to use that argument to support their case.
Thousands of Libyans, inspired by revolutions in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, rose up against Gaddafi's rule in February. That prompted a crackdown by his security forces in which, rights groups say, thousands of people were killed.
The Western bombing campaign began a month later under a United Nations mandate to protect civilians. Gaddafi holds on to power despite the air strikes, sanctions, and the defection of members of his government and military.
Ali Tarhouni, the oil chief with the rebel National Transitional Council, traveled from the council's base in the eastern city of Benghazi on Tuesday to the Western Mountains, a patch of land south of Tripoli also held by the rebels.
"I am hoping you will hear very good news in the next 24 to 48 hours on all fronts: military, economic, all fronts," Tarhouni told Reuters in the town of Zintan.
Asked if he had in mind a military breakthrough in the Western Mountains, he said: "Yes, yes, a breakthrough."
"How long has he (Gaddafi) got? I would think by the end of Ramadan," Tahouni said. Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, begins at the start of August.
Tarhouni said he had come to the region to bring financial help for the rebels there, to help with fuel shortages, and to appeal to Western countries to send food aid.
Gaddafi says the rebels are armed criminals and al Qaeda militants. He has called the NATO operation an act of colonial aggression aimed at stealing Libyan oil.
Rebel advances toward the capital -- which some in the West had thought could trigger the collapse of Gaddafi's rule -- have made slow and costly progress.
Strains over Libya are expected to surface on Friday when the contact group, which brings together the countries allied against Gaddafi, meets in Istanbul.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Peter Graff in Zintan, Nick Carey in Misrata, and Brian Love, Alexandria Sage and Vicky Buffery in Paris; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Matthew Jones)


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