Possible diplomatic opening in Libyan crisis

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French and Libyan officials talked up Tuesday the chances of negotiating Moamer Kadhafi's withdrawal from power and an end to the conflict wracking his country, after months of military stalemate.

Kadhafi's own prime minister told a French daily that the embattled regime was ready to begin talks with Paris and Libyan rebels "without preconditions" and without the interference of its authoritarian "Guide".

France -- which has spearheaded the Western diplomatic and military response to the crisis -- was more cautious, but confirmed it is in indirect talks with Tripoli to bring the fighting to an end and smooth Kadhafi's departure.

"The Guide will not take part in these discussions. Everything must be open," Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmudi told France's Le Figaro newspaper, in an interview conducted in Tripoli and published on Tuesday.

"We are ready to negotiate unconditionally," he said, although he called on NATO to halt air strikes. "We simply want a stop to the bombardments so that one can talk in a serene atmosphere. We cannot talk as bombs rain down."

Mahmud Shammam, spokesman for the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC), told AFP that the revolutionaries would only respond to "serious initiatives" that include the departure from power of Kadhafi and his sons.

He said Beshir Saleh, a Kadhafi ally, had approached France to propose the strongman step down but remain in Libya under international supervision, but that Kadhafi's most influential son, Seif Al-Islam, had vetoed the idea.

France has previously insisted military action will continue until Kadhafi quits power but, with the costly campaign now four months old and with little sign of a battlefield breakthrough, Paris appears ready to talk.

"There have indeed been contacts, but it has not turned into a real negotiation," Foreign Minister Alain Juppe told France Info radio. "The Libyan regime is sending messengers everywhere: to Turkey, New York, Paris.

"We are meeting envoys who say to us: look, 'Kadhafi is ready to go, let's talk about it'," he added.

"The conditions for a ceasefire are not yet met," Juppe said, declaring that Kadhafi must admit UN monitors, return his troops to barracks and declare that he "is withdrawing from political and military power."

Libya has been run by Kadhafi since he lead a 1969 revolution, but has been in ferment since the wave of democratic revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa spread to its cities in February.

Regime forces brutally suppressed street protests in the west of the country, but much of the east fell under the sway of an armed revolutionary movement, now known as the National Transitional Council.

When it appeared that loyalist forces might be preparing to crush the rebel capital Benghazi, western forces led by Britain and France intervened, enforcing a no-fly zone and carrying out airstrikes on government targets.

The military situation has now stabilised, with much of the country in rebel hands, but Kadhafi's forces still in control of Tripoli and most western towns -- despite an active rebel pocket in highlands south of the capital.

Several world powers, including Russia, Turkey and now France have tried to negotiate an end to the fighting, but Kadhafi's camp has remained publicly defiant, despite reports of behind the scenes manoeuvres.

On Monday, US President Barack Obama told his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev that Washington will support the Kremlin's bid to resolve the conflict if Kadhafi agrees to step aside, the White House said.

France, meanwhile, has been building support among Libya's partners in the African Union for its attempt to negotiate Kadhafi's departure.

Juppe visited AU headquarters in Addis Abeba on Sunday, and French officials say that -- despite their traditional opposition to outside pressure on African leaders -- leading members were now ready to accept Kadhafi's fall.

"Today there's a consensus on the way to get beyond the crisis, and the way out of the crisis is through Kadhafi leaving power," Juppe said.

"Today, the Ethiopian prime minister, whom I saw two days ago, and the Mauritanian president -- who between them lead the AU panel on Libya, are exactly on that line," he said.

On Monday, Seif Al-Islam told an Algerian daily that his father's government is "holding real negotiations with France and not with the rebels."

Meanwhile, on the ground, Libyan rebels in the Jebel Nafusa highlands south of Tripoli are preparing to advance on the capital, eyeing the regime-held town of Asabah after capturing a string of hamlets.

"This will be the most important battle of the Nafusa Mountains," rebel commander Wael Brachen told AFP at the front. "This is the last town before Garyan and... it is full of armed Kadhafi supporters."

Since the guerrillas took the village of Gualish on Wednesday, 17 kilometres (11 miles) from Asabah, they have been awaiting "the green light from NATO" to advance, hoping that airstrikes will clear their way.

A rebel statement sent from their embattled enclave in Misrata, a coastal city just east of the capital, said that ten of NTC fighters had been killed and 22 wounded in government shelling on the western front.

© 2011 AFP

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