BENGHAZI (Reuters) - The U.N. envoy to Libya will discuss with rebel leaders on Monday informal plans for a negotiated end to the war as Western powers ramp up diplomatic and military pressure on Muammar Gaddafi to step down.
Abdul Elah al-Khatib arrived in the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi on Monday, rebels said, as a diplomatic push to end the conflict gathers steam.
In an apparent further sign of moves towards a political solution, a senior rebel leader was quoted as saying that Gaddafi and his family could remain in Libya provided they gave up power.
Gaddafi is clinging to power despite a four-month-old NATO air campaign and five months of fighting with rebels who have seized large swathes of the North African country.
NATO has continued to hammer Gaddafi’s forces around Libya, striking twice in central Tripoli on Monday, and Britain has said there would be no let up during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in August. But hopes have grown for a negotiated end to a war that has dragged on longer than many initially expected.
A European diplomat said last week that Khatib would try to persuade warring parties in Libya to accept an informal plan that envisages a ceasefire followed by the creation of an interim power-sharing government, but with no role for Gaddafi.
Khatib, a senior Jordanian politician, told Reuters in Amman last week that he hoped both sides would accept his ideas.
“The U.N. is exerting very serious efforts to create a political process that has two pillars; one is an agreement on a ceasefire and simultaneously an agreement on setting up a mechanism to manage the transitional period,” he said. He did not go into the details of that mechanism.
Khatib’s visit comes a day after Gaddafi’s foreign minister, Abdelati Obeidi, ended a three-day round of talks in Cairo to seek a negotiated end to the war.
Libya’s government has said is representatives are ready to hold more talks with the United States and the rebels, but that Gaddafi himself will not negotiate and will not quit.
Spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said on Friday that senior Libyan officials had a “productive dialogue” with U.S. counterparts earlier this month in a rare meeting that followed U.S. recognition of the rebel government.
Complicating Gaddafi’s situation is the fact that the world court in The Hague is seeking his arrest for crimes against humanity allegedly committed by his forces. This makes it difficult for him to find refuge outside the country.
Hopes for a negotiated settlement have grown, however, since France said for the first time last week that Gaddafi could stay in Libya as long as he gives up power.
In what appeared to be a significant reverse of policy, opposition leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil said Gaddafi and his family can stay in Libya as part of a political deal to end the war provided they give up power.
“Gaddafi can stay in Libya but it will have conditions,” Jalil told the Wall Street Journal. “We will decide where he stays and who watches him. The same conditions will apply to his family.”
On the cusp of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, poorly armed rebels seem unlikely to quickly unseat Gaddafi.
The rebels declared advances last week but they also suffered losses near Misrata and in fighting for Brega.
Rebels announced early last week they were on the verge of capturing the oil town of Brega, but later said that minefields had slowed their advance.
Rebels fighting on the western front near Misrata, say they have pushed closer to Zlitan, on the Mediterranean coast 160 km (100 miles) east of Tripoli.
Zlitan is the largest city between rebel-held Misrata and the capital and remains in Gaddafi’s control. Were the rebels to take Zlitan, attention would turn to Khums, the next large town on the coastal road to the capital.
Britain said its warplanes on patrol near Zlitan successfully struck four buildings on Saturday, which NATO surveillance had identified as command and control centres and staging posts, as well as hitting an ammunition stockpile.
Apache helicopters also struck a number of military positions between Zlitan and Khums, he said.
But it was relatively quiet on the front near Zlitan on Sunday. Most rebels were taking shelter from the sun.
Fighting also briefly broke out on Sunday in the western mountains, where rebels have captured large swathes of territory.
Witnesses said Gaddafi’s forces shelled rebels in Qawalish. They said a group of civilian cars left the pro-Gaddafi town of Asaba, followed by Gaddafi’s troops, and stormed towards Qawalish before pulling back and shelling from a distance.
Gaddafi’s government has urged ordinary Libyans to join his fight against the rebels, but few have so far heeded the call.
In the Bulgarian capital, a group of Libyan diplomats stormed their own embassy, tore down the national flag, smashed statues and declared that they were now on the side of the rebels .