France: Qaddafi can stay, but must step down

PARIS — France's foreign minister suggested Wednesday that a possible way out of Libya's civil war would be to allow Muammar Qaddafi to stay in the country if he relinquishes power.

Qaddafi insists he will neither step down nor flee the country he has led for four decades. With the NATO-led air campaign against Qaddafi's forces entering its fifth month and the fighting in a stalemate, the international community is seeking exit strategies.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy met in Paris on Wednesday with three rebel leaders from the western port city of Misrata who are seeking aid and arms to move toward Tripoli. Sarkozy announced no specific measures in response.

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France wants to keep "a very close link" with the rebels "to see how we can help."

Asked whether Qaddafi could stay in Libya under house arrest, for example, Juppe said on LCI television Wednesday: "One of the hypotheses that is envisaged is that he stays in Libya, on one condition ... that he clearly steps aside from Libya's political life. This is what we are waiting for before launching a political process."

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The rebels initially insisted that Qaddafi leave the country, and one of those who met Wednesday with Sarkozy maintained that view — while others are not ruling out the possibility that he could stay in Libya if he gives up power.

"I don't think there is a place for him (in Libya). He is a criminal now," Souleiman Fortia, the National Transitional Council's Misrata representative, told reporters after the meeting with the French president.

Misrata rebel military leaders Ramadan Zarmouh and Ahmed Hachem also met with Sarkozy.

Rebels and pro-Qaddafi forces have been locked in a stalemate, with the rebels unable to advance beyond pockets in the west despite a NATO air campaign against Qaddafi's forces.

Rebels hold most of the east, but have proven unable over the last week to wrest the strategic oil town of Brega from Qaddafi's forces.

Mohammed Idris, a doctor at the hospital in the nearby town of Ajdabiya, said 27 rebels were killed and 83 others were wounded Tuesday in fighting for Brega. That raised the six-day death toll to 60, according to Idris.

Rebel military spokesman Ahmed Zleitini said Wednesday that rebel forces had pulled back from Brega but still had the city surrounded in hopes that Qaddafi's forces in the city would surrender "to avoid bloodshed."

Fortia, the rebel representative meeting with French leaders, said the western port city of Misrata, where rebel forces pushed government troops out of the city center, is "the key" to taking Tripoli and "tightening the noose around this dictator and his lackeys."

"With a little help from some friends, we will be in Tripoli very soon ... a matter of days," he contended during a news conference.

The plan is to move toward Tripoli from Zlitan west of Misrata and then Al-Khums in a step-by-step advance, members of the delegation said.

"Their message was the following: what we did to liberate our city, we can do it to move forward toward Tripoli," said French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, who helped organize the meeting and has championed the Libyan rebel cause.

"If they (the rebels) have the means, they just need a few days to reach the doors of Tripoli. They are expected in the three cities before Tripoli by experienced fighters who are just waiting for them. So a few days will be enough," he said.

Rebels fighters have been making similar claims for months, while the battle's front lines have moved little.

Henri-Levy said Sarkozy listened to them but did not say whether any aid or arms were pledged.

France has played a driving role in the NATO-led campaign of airstrikes, mandated by the U.N. to protect civilians from a crackdown by Qaddafi's forces on an uprising against his rule, amid revolts this year around the Arab world.

Last week, more than 30 nations including the United States gave the Libyan rebels a boost by recognizing their National Transitional Council as the country's legitimate government, potentially freeing up billions of dollars in urgently needed cash.

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