US envoys held a rare meeting with representatives of Moamer Kadhafi’s regime over the weekend and urged the Libyan strongman to cede power, a US official said Monday.
The one-off meeting on Saturday came a day after the United States and other Western and regional powers recognized the rebel Transitional National Council as Libya’s legitimate authority.
US officials “met with regime representatives to deliver a clear and firm message that the only way to move forward is for Kadhafi to step down,” the US official said in Washington on condition of anonymity.
“This was not a negotiation. It was the delivery of a message,” the official said.
“We have no plans to meet again, because the message has been delivered,” she said.
Another US official, who was traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in India, said that the meeting included Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and Gene Cretz, who is the US ambassador to Libya but has left the country.
The official would not say who was on Kadhafi’s side or where the meeting took place, other than that it was outside of Libya.
But Mussa Ibrahim, a spokesman for Kadhafi’s regime in Tripoli, told CNN that the talks took place in Tunisia and characterized the session as the start of a diplomatic process.
“It was a first step in dialogue,” he told the network.
Kadhafi, who has ruled Libya for four decades, has been hanging on to power despite rebel advances and four months of NATO-led bombings. A number of US lawmakers have questioned the legitimacy of the military campaign, which will terminate at the end of September unless NATO extends it again.
Western and regional powers, in the fourth so-called contact group meeting on Libya, agreed Friday in Istanbul to consider the rebels as the country’s legitimate rulers — a move that gives them access to vital funds.
The United States spoke with the rebels before speaking to Kadhafi’s regime and they agreed that the meeting was “the right step to take,” said the US official who was traveling with Clinton.
The US official in Washington said that the United States wanted to express major powers’ views “directly and unequivocally” in the aftermath of the talks in Istanbul.
“The message was simple and unambiguous and the same message we deliver in public — Kadhafi must leave power so that a new political process can begin that reflects the will and aspirations of the Libyan people,” she said.
The United States and Libya exchanged ambassadors in 2009 after a break of 36 years as the two countries tried to repair relations that had long been clouded by Western suspicions that Kadhafi supported terrorism.
But Kadhafi’s relations with the West rapidly deteriorated after he launched an assault on rebels. The US embassy in Tripoli shut operations on February 25 when Washington imposed sanctions and froze the regime’s assets.
Libyan rebels have reported advances in recent days and said Monday that they were in control of the refinery town of Brega. But Kadhafi’s forces insisted that they had repulsed the assault.