BREGA/ATHENS (Reuters) – A Libyan envoy was in Europe on Monday seeking to end the oil-producing country’s bloody civil war that has become locked in a battlefield stalemate between rebels and forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi.
Libya wanted a negotiated political settlement, Greek officials said, because a military solution to the conflict between rag-tag rebels backed by Western air power and Gaddafi’s better armed troops now looked impossible.
“The Libyan envoy wanted to convey that Libya has the intention to negotiate,” a Greek official said after the visit byLibyan Deputy Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi. “We don’t think that there can be a military solution to this crisis.”
Obeidi is expected in Turkey on Monday and Malta on Tuesday.
“We’ll now have to see how it is possible for such a process to start, a political process that will allow a national discussion,” Gregory Delavekouras, Greek foreign ministry spokesman, told Greece’s NET radio on Monday.
Beyond a willingness to talk, there was no sign of what Libya might offer to end the war that is bogged down on a frontline around the eastern oil town of Brega, while civilians are bombarded by Gaddafi forces in western rebel holdouts.
Wounded refugees from the town of Misrata said a massacre was taking place there, with one describing the situation as “hell.” Libyan officials deny attacking civilians in Misrata, saying that they are fighting armed gangs linked to al Qaeda.
Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou had been talking by telephone with officials in Tripoli as well as the leaders of Qatar, Turkey and Britain over the past two days. Greece has enjoyed good relations with Gaddafi for a number of years.
But Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who had spoken to Greek officials, dismissed the Libyan envoy’s message saying a divided Libya was not acceptable and Gaddafi must quit.
After a meeting with Ali Essawi, a member of the Libyan rebel council looking after foreign affairs, Frattini said Italy, the former colonial power in Libya, backed the rebels.
“We have decided to recognize the council as the only political, legitimate interlocutor to represent Libya,” he said.
“A solution for the future of Libya has a pre-condition — that Gaddafi’s regime leaves and is out and that Gaddafi himself and his family leave the country,” he said, adding an interim government headed by one of Gaddafi’s sons was “not an option.”
Underlining the plight of civilians in west Libya, a Turkish ship that sailed into the besieged city of Misrata to rescue some 250 wounded under protection of Turkish warplanes had to leave in a hurry after thousands pressed forward on the dock. It is expected to reach Cesme in Turkey on Tuesday night.
Another aid ship operated by charity Medecins Sans Frontieres docked in the Tunisianport of Sfax carrying 71 wounded people from Misrata, many with bullet wounds and broken limbs and one whose face was completely disfigured by burns.
“I could live or die but I am thinking of my family and friends who are stranded in the hell of Misrata,” said a tearful Abdullah Lacheeb, who had serious injuries to his pelvis and stomach and a bullet wound in his leg.
“Imagine, they use tanks against civilians. He (Gaddafi) is prepared to kill everyone there … I am thinking of my family.”
“CORPSES IN THE STREET”
Omar Boubaker, a 40-year-old engineer with a bullet wound to the leg, said: “You have to visit Misrata to see the massacre by Gaddafi … Corpses in the street. The hospital over-flowing.”
Misrata, Libya’s third city, rose up with other towns against Gaddafi’s rule in mid-February, but it is now surrounded by government troops after a violent crackdown put an end to most protests elsewhere in the west of the country.
Stalemate on the frontline, high-level defections from Gaddafi’s inner circle and the plight of civilians caught in fighting or facing food and fuel shortages have prompted a flurry of diplomatic contacts to find a way out.
One diplomat cautioned, however, that any diplomatic compromise — for example one in which Gaddafi handed over power to one of his sons — could lead to the partition of Libya.
“Various scenarios are being discussed,” said the diplomat. “Everyone wants a quick solution.”
If there were eventually to be a ceasefire leading to the partition of Libya, control of revenues from the oil ports, including Brega and Ras Lanuf to the west, would be crucial.
Gaddafi believes the uprising is fueled by Islamist radicals and Western nations who want to control Libya’s oil. The rebels, whose stronghold is in the eastern city ofBenghazi, want nothing less than the removal of Gaddafi and his circle.
Al Jazeera television said on Monday that Gaddafi forces had bombarded Misla oil field in eastern Libya.
Misla, operated by the eastern-based Arabian Gulf Oil Company (Agoco) which is under rebel control, lies in the desert 400 km (250 miles) south of the rebel-held town of Ajdabiyah.
The U.N.-mandated military intervention, in which warplanes have attacked Gaddafi’s armor, radars and air defenses, began on March 19 and was intended to protect civilians caught up in fighting between pro-Gaddafi forces and the rebels.
Neither the Gaddafi troops nor the mostly disorganized rebel force have been able to gain the upper hand on the frontline, despite the Western air power in effect aiding the insurgents.
After chasing each other up and down the coast road linking the oil ports of eastern Libya with Gaddafi’s tribal heartland further west, the two sides are stuck around Brega, a sparsely populated settlement spread over more than 25 km (15 miles).
Rebels pushed the army out of much of Brega and toward the outskirts of the sprawling oil town on Monday in a slow advance west, but were still facing bombardment with each step.
REBELS MORE ORGANISED
Showing signs of greater organization than in past weeks, rebels aided by the Western air strikes have moved more cautiously and held ground more stubbornly than before despite facing Gaddafi’s better-equipped ground forces.
“Gaddafi’s forces are waiting at the western gate exactly. Any advance by the rebels, they fire at with mortars,” said rebel fighter Youssef Shawadi, a few kilometers from the gate.
Signs of fighting were evident from dozens of burned out pick-ups and cars lying by the road through Brega.
Near the university — a focus of five days of clashes — thuds and blasts could be heard from around the western gate. Black smoke rose as the two sides fired rockets at each other.
The rebels, who need modern weapons and better training if they are to match Gaddafi’s forces, said the army had laid mines and booby-traps as they withdrew west from the university.
“Gaddafi wants the rebels on the road. If they keep to the road he can hit them with rockets and Grad (missiles),” said rebel army soldier Hassan el-Fetouri.
Western countries, wary of becoming too entangled in another war after campaigns inAfghanistan and Iraq, have ruled out sending ground troops to help the rebels in what has become a civil war in the North African desert state.
The United States, which has handed over command of the air operation to NATO, said it had agreed to extend the use of its strike aircraft into Monday because of poor weather last week.
But it has stressed its desire to end its own involvement in combat missions, and shift instead to a support role in areas such as surveillance, electronic warfare and refueling.
(Additional reporting by Alexander Dziadosz in Brega, Angus MacSwan in Benghazi,Christian Lowe in Algiers, Ibon Villelabeitia, Tom Pfeiffer in Cairo, Joseph Nasr inBerlin, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Tarek Amara, Karolina Tagaris in London; Writing by Peter Millership; Editing by Giles Elgood)
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