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Regime ‘seeking solution’ amid diplomatic drive

Following a spate of high-level defections and with a military stand-off that is tearing the country apart, the Libyan regime is reaching out for a diplomatic solution to its current crisis.

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An envoy from the Libyan government arrived in Athens on Monday at the beginning of a Europe-wide diplomatic mission to find a way of ending the fighting in the North African country.

Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi is due to visit Malta and then Turkey following his meeting with Greek officials.

Italy on Monday became the second European country after France to recognise Libya’s rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) as the north African country’s only legitimate voice. Qatar has also recognised the rebel’s authority.

Following a meeting with an NTC envoy in Rome, Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said, “We have decided to recognise the council as the only political, legitimate interlocutor to represent Libya.”

Frattini did not rule out arming rebel fighters, which would effectively sidestep the clause in the UN Security Council resolution forbidding foreign intervention on the ground.

The foreign minister also reiterated his country’s calls that leader Muammar Gaddafi be replaced as a precondition for any solution to the country’s conflict. Libya is a former Italian colony.

“It seems that the Libyan authorities are seeking a solution,” Greek Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas told reporters, although it remains unclear what exactly the Libyan government is proposing.

Greek officials have already warned that any solution – for example, if Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi was to hand power to one of his sons – could lead to Libya being split in two.

France, Britain and the United States had ruled this option out before they began launching air strikes against the Gaddafi regime on March 19. The rebel Transitional National Council on Monday also rejected any idea of a transition to democracy under members of the Gaddafi family after the New York Times reported that at least two of Gaddafi’s sons had proposed this option in a deal that would include removing their father from power.

Quoting a diplomat and a Libyan official, the article said the transition would likely be spearheaded by Seif al-Islam, who is believed to have been groomed as Gaddafi’s successor before the popular uprising.

Further cracks

These diplomatic overtures follow a political catastrophe for the Gaddafi regime last week when a trusted Gaddafi adviser, Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa, flew to London and announced his defection, followed by former foreign minister Ali Treiki on Sunday.

In a further sign that the Libyan leader’s support may be waning, former premier and government spokesman Abdul Ati al-Obeidi told Britain’s Channel 4 News on Friday that his country was “trying to speak to the British, the French and the Americans to stop the killing of people”.  

“We are trying to find a mutual solution,” he added.

A British diplomat confirmed to the Guardian newspaper that Mohammed Ismail, an aide to Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, had been in London visiting family. Diplomats there took “the opportunity to communicate to him some very firm messages regarding the Gaddafi regime”.

“If the people on the Gaddafi side want to have a conversation, we are happy to talk,” the unnamed diplomat said. “But we will deliver a clear and consistent message: Gaddafi has to go, and there has to be a better future for Libya.”

Cause for caution

Nevertheless, Western diplomats are likely to be cautious of Libyan government overtures.

Since the uprising in Libya began on February 15, messages and promises from Gaddafi and his regime have been confused, contradictory and sometimes clearly false.

Gaddafi initially accused the terrorist network al Qaeda of fomenting the uprising, and – in the same speech – blamed the same Western nations to which the Libyan government is now reaching out.

And just before the coalition attacks began in mid-March, Gaddafi announced a ceasefire in the country, which he promptly broke as his forces, made up of loyalist government troops and hired mercenaries, launched concerted attacks against rebel positions.

The latest offer of a ceasefire from the rebel side – conditional on Gaddafi leaving the country, withdrawing his troops from all cities and allowing freedom of expression – was rejected out of hand as “mad” by the Libyan government on Friday.

Rebel weakness boosts Gaddafi

Despite the coalition attacks, Gaddafi remains in a position of some strength on the ground.

The rebels have so far proved to be a disorganised force with no central control or heavy weapons. They have failed to hold onto advances despite the coalition air strikes that have been hammering Gaddafi’s forces for more than two weeks.

But that may be about to change. A semblance of order has started to emerge among rebel forces as enthusiastic but undisciplined fighters are pulled off of the front line in favour of seasoned former army soldiers.

Ahmed al-Shiri, a former high-ranking army officer, told the Associated Press news agency that the military council in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi had been working on improvements in the past weeks. He blamed a lack of coordination and organisation for the rebels’ failure to take the Gaddafi stronghold of Sirte.

“We are getting orders from the military council now,” he said. “The [rebel] army is in control. These undisciplined fighters aren’t leading the way anymore.”

 

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