April 01, 2011
LIBYAN rebels last night offered a ceasefire if Muammar Gaddafi - his regime crumbling with the defection of key aides - pulled his military forces out of cities and allowed peaceful protests against his regime.
The ceasefire offer from Interim Governing Council chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil came as US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said the rebels needed more weapons and training.
"We agree on a ceasefire on the condition that our brothers in the western cities have freedom of expression and also that the forces that are besieging the cities withdraw," Mr Jalil said after meeting UN special envoy Abdul Ilah Khatib in Benghazi.
While Gaddafi's former foreign minister Moussa Koussa was being interrogated in London by British authorities - who say he has not been offered immunity - three of Libya's ministers and its intelligence chief were said to be about to leave the regime.
In evidence to US congress committees in Washington yesterday, Dr Gates signalled that the Libyan conflict could turn into a stalemate, and said no one could predict how long it might take the "disparate and scattered" rebel forces to overthrow the Gaddafi regime.
Dr Gates's comments came as the Pentagon said it would withdraw its attack planes from Libya's skies after NATO took over command of the UN-backed military operations in the country to maintain a no-fly zone and protect civilians.
With the rebels forced to retreat eastwards in recent days after being pounded by the Gaddafi army, Dr Gates said the opposition needed more training, command, control and organisation.
"In terms of providing that training, in terms of providing assistance to them, frankly, there are many countries that can do that," he said.
"That's not a unique capability for the United States, and as far as I'm concerned, somebody else should do that."
US President Barack Obama earlier this week left open the option of arming rebels, and declared "the noose is tightening" around Gaddafi supporters.
Questioned repeatedly about the Obama administration's willingness to step up its role in the conflict, Dr Gates insisted regime change was not the US objective in the UN-backed mission, even if deposing the Gaddafi regime would be welcomed.
He said ousting the regime would probably be achieved over time by international political and economic pressure, and by the dictator's people.
Dr Gates insisted the US would not put "boots on the ground" in Libya. "Not as long as I am in the job," he said.
He was reluctant to comment on reports that CIA operatives were working inside Libya to assist rebels and ascertain whether opposition groups were friendly to the US.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, said cracks had begun to show in the Libyan dictator's military forces but they were far from breaking-point after allied air assaults.
Up to 25 per cent of Gaddafi's forces had been destroyed so far, he said, but they still maintained a 10-one advantage over rebels.
Admiral Mullen also confirmed that bad weather this week had hindered allied air attacks, with cloud cover preventing identification of targets.
"That has reduced the effectiveness and allowed the regime forces to move back to the east," Admiral Mullen said.
Dr Gates was known to be reluctant about launching a US-led no-fly zone and admitted only days ago that Libya was not vital to US interests. He appeared to come around to the idea yesterday, saying Gaddafi's continued leadership posed a danger to the region as it was swept by reform.
US National Security spokesman Tommy Veitor described the decision of Mr Koussa to desert Gaddafi and fly to London as a blow to the dictator's regime.
Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said Mr Koussa had been granted permission to travel to Tunisia for medical treatment. He confirmed the defection was a surprise but said the country's government "does not depend on one person".
In London, British officials have been questioning Mr Koussa, who is said to be in a fraught mental state, about how to hasten the dictatorship's collapse.
Officials insisted that "no shoddy deal" had been done to give him permanent safe haven.
"Let me be clear, Moussa Koussa is not being granted immunity," British Prime Minister David Cameron said. "There is no deal of that kind."
But there was little sign that the former head of Gaddafi's feared intelligence agency was facing imminent prosecution, despite running a secret police between 1994 and 2009 that is accused of imprisoning and torturing opponents of the regime.
In an unusual move, Downing Street and Foreign Office officials suggested they did not believe there was a case for Mr Koussa to answer on the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, despite claims by relatives of victims to the contrary. Mr Koussa was a senior intelligence official at the time.
Scottish prosecutors have asked to speak to Mr Koussa but Whitehall officials said the interview with police would not happen imminently and that he was not viewed by the police as a "prime suspect".
Mr Cameron and William Hague avoided condemning the activities of Mr Koussa.
The Foreign Secretary made the unusual claim that his Libyan counterpart had sounded distressed during phone calls and that, "reading between the lines", disagreed with the work of the regime.
Mr Hague even suggested he had been helpful in securing the release of captured Britons.
Opponents of Gaddafi's regime called for Mr Koussa to face justice, but are likely to be disappointed. Officials confirmed that a war crimes tribunal investigation by the International Criminal Court was unlikely to come to a speedy conclusion.
It emerged yesterday that Mohammed Ismail, an aide to Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, has visited London in recent days and met British officials. In addition, the Libyan opposition said the head of intelligence, the Oil Minister, the Prime Minister and a deputy foreign minister were waiting to flee.
Mustafa Gheriani, an opposition spokesman in Benghazi, said: "We believe the regime is crumbling."
Additional reporting: AP, The Times