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In a major shift in its position on the war in Libya, France has announced it wants the rebels to begin direct negotiations with representatives of Muammar Gaddafi. NATO has been trying for more than three months to depose the Libyan leader in an air campaign, led by France, which has cost tens of millions of dollars and caused fractures in the alliance.
In a strong indication of mounting frustration over NATO’s lack of success from the air and the rebels’ slow progress on the ground, France’s defence minister, Gerard Longuet, said last Sunday on French television that NATO had “stopped the hand that was striking” against the insurgents and “now was the time to sit down at the negotiating table.
“We have asked them to speak to each other,” said Longuet, whose government was the most ardent supporter of military action three months ago and was the first to launch air strikes.
But the biggest surprise in Longuet’s television appearance came when he said the bombs would stop falling as soon as negotiations begin, indicating NATO will cease all military operations. Which means that Gaddafi, against all expectations, will survive. Forcing Gaddafi to leave had always been a main goal of the military campaign Great Britain and France have been spearheading.
“We will stop the bombing as soon as the Libyans start talking to one another and the military on both sides go back to their bases,” said Longuet. “They can talk to each other because we’ve shown there is no solution through force.”
Up until now, the rebels have refused to negotiate with the Libyan government until Gaddafi stepped down. France says it still wants Gaddafi out but obviously now believes NATO’s bombing campaign will not achieve this goal and is too expensive to maintain, so a diplomatic solution is now necessary. The war is costing France about one and a half million dollars a day.
On Tuesday, the French government voted to continue its military involvement in Libya for another four months, adding another $150 million to its war debt. Before the vote, France’s prime minister, Alain Juppe, said “A political solution is more indispensable than ever…” but depends on “an authentic and verifiable” ceasefire and “the departure of Col. Gaddafi from power.” As for Gaddafi, Longuet said he could “remain in Libya ‘in another room of the palace, with another title’.”
The United States and other NATO countries have never opposed the rebels’ position that Gaddafi must relinquish power before negotiations can begin. France’s two main NATO allies, Great Britain and America, were both quick to respond to Longuet’s announcement, indicating their displeasure as well as a possible breach opening up in the alliance. While one British official said there was “no daylight” between France’s and his country’s position, the State Department said in a release that “…we stand firm in our belief that Gaddafi cannot remain in power.”
The rebels were also “defiant.” After all, they rose in rebellion to destroy permanently Gaddafi’s hold on their country. Besides, they know they would never be safe if Gaddafi, his secret police and armed thugs were still around. The Libyan civilians NATO says it is bombing Libya to protect would be in danger with Gaddafi still at large.
“The only political solution is that Gaddafi and his family leave power,” said one rebel commander.
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