Libya denies Russia report Gaddafi seeking way out

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Muammar Gaddafi is sounding out the possibility of handing over power, a Russian newspaper said yesterday, but the Libyan government denied it was in talks about the veteran leader stepping down.

Five months into a conflict that has embroiled NATO and become the bloodiest of the “Arab Spring” uprisings, there has been a flurry of reports about talks on Gaddafi ending his 41 years in power in exchange for security guarantees.

Russia’s respected Kommersant newspaper based its story on a high-level source in Moscow. But the report was denied in Tripoli and Italy said it believed talk of a deal was a ruse by Gaddafi’s administration.
“Information about negotiations about Gaddafi stepping down or seeking a safe refuge inside or outside the country is simply untrue,” Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim told Reuters.
“Gaddafi is not negotiable, this is our position of principle, and the future of Libya will be decided by Libyans. Gaddafi is an historical symbol, and Libyans will die to defend him,” said Ibrahim.

Despite the talk of a peace deal, fighting between government forces and rebels continues. A Reuters reporter in Misrata, 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli, said rebel positions in the Dafniya district on the city’s western outskirts came under heavy artillery fire yesterday.

The bodies of rebel fighters were brought in to Misrata’s al-Hekma hospital and a hospital source said the death toll from the shelling had risen to 11 with 42 fighters wounded.

Many of them were in critical condition, and some would need to have limbs amputated, staff at the hospital said.

Some analysts say that Gaddafi is starting to contemplate an exit plan as shortages of cash and fuel, the NATO bombing campaign and rebel military pressure shorten the odds on him being able to hold on to power.

But Western diplomats caution that it is in Gaddafi’s interests to send out conflicting signals about possible deals, in the hope that it will sow confusion among the rebels and the fragile Western alliance trying to push him out.

Kommersant newspaper reported Western powers, including France, were receptive to a deal with Gaddafi if he agrees to step down.
“The colonel (Gaddafi) is sending signals that he is prepared to relinquish power in exchange for security guarantees,” the newspaper quoted what it called a high-level source in the Russian leadership as saying.

The report came a day after Russia hosted South African President Jacob Zuma — who has tried to broker a peace deal for Libya — and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen for talks which focussed on Libya.

After his return from Russia, Zuma’s office issued a statement saying he had asked NATO to persuade the rebel National Transitional Council to come to the negotiating table.
“The meeting was very successful, and I am confident that it will contribute significantly to reaching a solution that will bring peace and stability in Libya,” the statement said.

Britain’s defence ministry said its aircraft, along with NATO allies, had destroyed tanks, weapons stores, armed trucks and command posts in operations over the weekend in several parts of the country.

On Monday, the Libyan government had said it held talks in Italy, Norway and Egypt with senior figures in the opposition about finding a peaceful way out of the conflict.

But the Italian government denied any talks had taken place on its soil and expressed scepticism that Gaddafi’s administration was sincere about talks.
“The aim of Tripoli’s people, Tripoli’s regime, is to drive a wedge within the coalition,” said Italian foreign ministry spokesman Maurizio Massari. “So I interpret this false information as … a demonstration of weakness of Gaddafi’s regime.”

Speaking to Reuters on Tuesday, Libyan government spokesman Ibrahim said the Italian government was mistaken but could not reveal the identity of the Italian government member who attended the talks “for diplomatic reasons”.

NATO launched its bombing campaign in March after the United Nations Security Council authorised the use of all necessary means to protect civilians who, inspired by revolutions in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, rose up against Gaddafi.

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.

Rebels control the eastern third of Libya, as well as pockets in the West, and NATO says its strikes are gradually eroding Gaddafi’s hold on power. But the rebels have failed to make a breakthrough and advance on Tripoli.

Aid agencies have warned of shortages of food and medicines in rebel areas.

United Nations workers who visited the Western Mountains region, south-west of Tripoli, said farmers had been forced to sell or eat their livestock, leaving them without a livelihood.
“Our colleagues who were there saw only 2 cows during their entire mission. They saw no sheep and no goats. People have been selling … off family assets in order to survive,” Emilia Casella, a spokeswoman with the UN’s World Food Programme, told a news briefing in Geneva.