France says "contacts" under way on Gaddafi exit

Widespread discussions are under way to bring the Libyan crisis to an end and "emissaries" say Muammar Gaddafi is ready to leave power, France's Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Tuesday.

"Everybody is in contact with everybody. The Libyan regime is sending messengers everywhere, to Turkey, New York, Paris. Juppe said on France Info state radio. "Emissaries are telling us Gaddafi is ready to go, let's talk about it," Juppe said.

Juppe did not say who the emissaries were but French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said:

"These are emissaries who say they are coming in the name of Gaddafi. What is important is that we send them the same message and stay in close contact with our allies on this."

Remarks by Defense Minister Gerard Longuet at the weekend saying rebels should start direct negotiations with Gaddafi's camp, and a report that Paris was talking to the Libyan leader, pointed to a growing restlessness in Paris about the stalemate.

French officials denied any shift in position Monday and said Paris had merely sent messages to Tripoli via intermediaries making clear the Libyan leader must relinquish power and withdraw his troops to enable a political solution.

"There are contacts but it's not a negotiation proper at this stage," Juppe said Tuesday.

France has spearheaded the NATO-led air campaign in Libya with Britain under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians, and it was the first to launch air strikes against troops loyal to Gaddafi in March.

But after more than three months of bombing, international leaders are puzzling over how to end the crisis. Rebels hold large parts of eastern Libya and have loosened a siege of the city of Misrata, but are unable to make decisive moves toward the capital Tripoli despite strikes on Gaddafi's forces.

Diplomatic sources close to the matter said Monday envoys from Paris and Tripoli have met in Paris, Brussels and Tunisia in recent weeks, but have made little progress.

Juppe and Prime Minister Francois Fillon Tuesday reiterated that Gaddafi had to quit, without saying if that meant he could do so without quitting the country too.

"He must go. He must at least surrender power. After that, it's up to the Libyan people to decide," Fillon told Europe 1 radio.

Ready to negotiate?

In an interview with French daily Le Figaro Tuesday the Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi said Tripoli was ready to "negotiate without conditions" but that the bombing would have to stop first.

"You don't create democracy under bombs... it doesn't work like that," he said.

When asked if Gaddafi could be excluded from a political solution, Mahmoudi suggested the Libyan leader could stand aside. "The Guide (Gaddafi) will not intervene in discussions," he said. "He is ready to respect the decision of the people."

Karim Bitar, a Middle East expert at Paris-based think tank IRIS, said negotiations between the rebels and the Gaddafi camp were likely to be extremely complicated.

"It's not a country where power is easily shared. There are 6 million people, a few powerful tribes and oil reserves almost all in just one area, so it won't be easy to find a sort of an agreement where Gaddafi is on the sidelines and cedes power," Bitar said. "It will be extremely complicated and shows that (the coalition) was too quick and got carried away."

Concerned about the mounting cost of the military campaign-- now about 160 million euros ($228 million)-- and the prospect of it running on into the start of a 2012 election campaign, France wants a speedy conclusion to the conflict.

The government faced questioning Tuesday afternoon ahead of a parliamentary vote on whether to extend operations.

The opposition Socialist party has signaled that it will not oppose the extension, but has said it wants more intensive efforts to secure a political solution to the crisis.

[Source: By John Irish and Brian Love, Reuters, Paris, 12Jul11]

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