New cracks have appeared in the international coalition's resolve to force the defeat of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi with a call by France's defence minister for Libyan rebel leaders to negotiate with the Tripoli government. Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, added weight to his colleague's view by suggesting that Colonel Qaddafi could even stay on Libyan territory provided he relinquished all political responsibility.
The Qaddafi regime has proved unexpectedly resilient in the four months since the launch of UN-sanctioned strikes to protect civilians from government forces.
France was at the forefront of moves to support opponents of Colonel Qaddafi and was the first nation to give formal recognition to the rebels' Transitional National Council (TNC) as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people and, effectively, its government-in-waiting. On Sunday, however, the French defence minister, Gerard Longuet, said the rebels should not wait for the dictator's defeat.
"We have asked them to speak to each other," he said on the French television station BFM-TV. "The position of the TNC is very far from other positions. Now, there will be a need to sit around a table."
Asked if this meant talks should be held without Col Gaddafi having to relinquish power, Mr Longuet replied: "He will be in another room in his palace with another title."
He said France favoured a halt to bombardments once the two sides began talking, with all forces returned to base.
Commentators said the minister's comments, though accompanied by indications that France still sought a resolution in which Colonel Qaddafi ultimately left power, highlighted impatience with the inconclusive achievements in the conflict.
Any coalition leaders who expected quick results, with Col Qaddafi bowing to Nato military might and negotiating surrender, will have been disappointed.
The rebels are unlikely to be defeated because of the support from Nato, but their limited gains have come at a heavy price against the better-equipped government troops.
Even so, they have remained defiant and optimistic, sticking to their refusal to enter negotiations while ColonelQaddafi clings to power.
In an interview with the Algerian newspaper El Khabar published yesterday, Saif Al Islam Qaddafi, one of the Libyan leader’s sons and spokesman for the regime, said his father’s government was in talks with the French government.
Mr Qaddafi claimed a go-between had met the president, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Bernard Valero, the spokesman for the French foreign ministry, yesterday denied there had been direct negotiations but acknowledged “messages are passed”.
These were “simple and clear”: a political solution required Colonel Qaddafi’s removal from power and his renunciation of any political role.
In his comments, which appeared in the French regional newspaper SudOuest, Mr Juppe said the question was not whether Col Qaddafi would leave power “but when and how”.
The US, despite opting for a back seat in military terms after the initial strikes on Libya, remains adamant the dictator must go.
Reuters news agency quoted the US state department as saying in a written response on Sunday: “The Libyan people will be the ones to decide how this transition takes place, but we stand firm in our belief that Qaddafi cannot remain in power.”
The statement committed the US to maintaining efforts, as part of the Nato coalition, to protect civilians from attack and said the coalition was proving successful in intensifying pressure on the regime.
Air strikes have made a significant impact on Colonel Qaddafi’s military capability. But the operation has also been hugely expensive, without bringing much hope of a swift victory for anti-government forces.
But the rebels have stuck to their refusal to enter talks while Coonell Qaddafi clings to power.
Reuters noted this stance had gone unchallenged by Nato’s major powers before Mr Longuet’s intervention.
In another indication of mixed French attitudes, an outspoken army officer said in a lengthy interview in the weekly Journal du Dimanche that while he shared widespread hopes that Colonel Qaddafi would fall immediately from power, his strategy of playing a “waiting game” could end up succeeding.
General Vincent Desportes, who has become a symbol of free expression on the part of French military commanders despite being sanctioned for past pronouncements, said the coalition could have restricted itself to halting the assault on Benghazi and then entering into talks.
“In Afghanistan, had we held to the objective fixed in 2001, we would no longer be there,” he said.
Pointing out that for all the help Nato had given the rebels, they had still failed to produce a force capable of taking Tripoli, he added: “I am persuaded that it is time to seek a compromise with the Libyan authorities, but without necessarily stopping the bombardments, [which could be] an element of the negotiations.”
In New York, the UN’s Libya envoy, Abdul Elah al Khatib, said “the gap was still wide” between rebel leaders and the Tripoli government.
“Enough Libyans have lost their lives. It should be clear that any lasting end to the conflict will require a political solution,” Mr al Khatib told journalists yesterday, after meeting government officials in Tripoli over the weekend.
His proposal for an “institutional mechanism” to oversee the transition of power in Libya was being examined by both sides, he said.
The proposed body would involve representatives from all ethnic and social groups as well as a wide range of factions, regions and tribes, he said.