Wednesday, April 6, 2011

As war rages in Libya, diplomatic wheels spin

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) -- As rebel forces in Libya endure setbacks on the battlefield, a former U.S. lawmaker came to Tripoli armed with a plan to end the bloody war.

Ex-U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon, who met with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi before within the last decade, paid a visit to the Libyan capital with a cease-fire plan and a clear message to the embattled ruler that he must step down.

The diplomatic overture occurred amid one bit of good news for the rebels Wednesday -- a tanker carrying crude oil is leaving the Libyan port of Tobruk in what is the first known opposition export of oil during the conflict.

At the same time, rebel fighters are trying to recover from a heavy artillery barrage by Gadhafi forces in the town of al-Brega, while residents in the western city of Misrata are spending their days in fear.

Weldon's trip comes amid other moves. A U.S. representative paid a visit to opposition leaders in Benghazi in the east. And Gadhafi sent a letter to the U.S. State Department, according to a senior administration official. There were no details on the contents.

In an interview with CNN affiliate WPIX-TV in New York, Weldon said he plans to meet with Gadhafi and Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khalid Khaim.

"It's a very solemn time because there's so much at risk here," said Weldon, who led a congressional delegation to Libya in 2004 and is visiting Tripoli at Gadhafi's invitation. Weldon is a Republican who represented a suburban Philadelphia district.

"I'm here to tell him face to face it's time for him to leave. It's time for him to step down, allow the people to take over the government of this country."

In an opinion piece he wrote for The New York Times, Weldon is proposing a cease-fire, "with the Libyan Army withdrawing from contested cities and rebel forces ending attempts to advance."

"I've met him enough times to know that it will be very hard to simply bomb him into submission," Weldon wrote.

"Then we must identify and engage with those leaders who, if not perfect, are pragmatic and reform-minded and thus best positioned to lead the country," he added.

Libya remains in a deadly stalemate as pro-Gadhafi forces battle opposition fighters demanding democracy and an end to Gadhafi's nearly 42-year-rule.

Rebel leaders have criticized NATO's mission to help protect civilians in recent days, saying residents in Misrata and elsewhere have suffered under horrific attacks from pro-Gadhafi forces with little evidence of NATO air power overhead.

"I am extremely sorry to say this, but NATO truly disappointed us," Gen. Abdul Fatah Younis, the opposition's top military official, said Tuesday. "Civilians are being killed every day, including children, women and elderly. If NATO will wait another week, Misrata will be finished. No one will be left alive. Do they want to wait, and watch them die, and let this crime be a shameful disgrace for the international community forever?"

The NATO-led coalition in Libya is largely Western but it does include Arab nations, including the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Also, the Jordanian foreign minister announced Tuesday that royal air force fighter jets joined a military base in Europe "to provide logistical support for imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya and protect Jordanian military aircraft flying humanitarian aid to Libyan people," according to a report in state media.

NATO Brig. Gen. Marc van Uhm said weather conditions and tactics by Gadhafi regime have hindered their efforts.

In addition to using human shields and hiding equipment in populated areas, pro-Gadhafi forces have started abandoning heavy military equipment in favor of the same kinds of cars and light trucks the rebels travel in, making it difficult for pilots to distinguish rebel convoys from those carrying forces loyal to the regime, van Uhm said.

Since the effort to enforce a U.N. Security Council resolution began in mid-March, airstrikes have taken out about 30% of Gadhafi's military capacity, van Uhm said.

With the NATO operation getting under way last Thursday, 400 strike sorties have been conducted. Strike sorties are intended to identify and engage appropriate targets. NATO is operating under a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to protect Libyan civilians.

But residents in Misrata said this week that Gadhafi forces have trapped the city, with snipers shooting indiscriminately. Access to food has been hampered.

"Normal life is a luxury that we don't have," one resident said. "I haven't taken my family out for four weeks now. All schools are closed, my children didn't go to school since the 19th of February. All government offices are closed. Even dead people are buried without death certificates."

After weeks of relentless fighting, a military victory for either side seems remote. A political or diplomatic solution might be the only way to end the crisis.

Weldon said that in addition to his proposals for Gadhafi's stepping down, a cease-fire on both sides and the withdrawal of government forces from key cities, he is calling for a halt in further advances by rebel forces; the creation of a joint interim government run by Libya's current prime minister and the opposition leader; unfettered humanitarian access; and the establishment of a parliamentary commission that would include U.S., Middle Eastern, European and African politicians helping to establish a new parliament in Libya.

As for the economic front, a tanker with crude oil is leaving Tobruk and will travel to Qatar, where the oil will be refined, CNN confirmed. Final destination of the export is not known at this time.

The civil war in Libya has severely curtailed oil exports from the North African nation, which produced some 1.6 million barrels per day last year. This move symbolizes the opposition's intent to manage the country's affairs.

As for as the Gadhafi family, Weldon's proposals also suggest a possible title for Gadhafi as honorary chairman of the African Union and allowing his second-oldest son, Saif, to stand in elections.

In eastern Libya, a U.S. special representative to the Libyan opposition, Chris Stevens, arrived in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi to meet with members of the Transitional National Council, a State Department spokesman said Tuesday.

Stevens will assess what kind of "practical, nonlethal" assistance the United States might provide, according to the State Department.

The U.S. Treasury has frozen more than $32 billion in assets held by Gadhafi and members of his regime. Asked whether the opposition should be able to have access to those funds, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States "is well aware there is an urgency, that the Transitional National Council does need funding if it's to survive, and we're looking at ways to assist that." But Toner said he did not know the status of the $32 billion.

Gadhafi's regime has indicated a political change could be possible. A source close to Libya's leadership said a Libyan envoy has been floating the idea of Gadhafi turning his power over to Saif Gadhafi.

But Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, deputy chairman of the Transitional National Council, flatly rejected a future with any Gadhafi.

"We will not accept Gadhafi or any of his sons or aides ruling us ever again for even one hour," he said. "This is impossible. We will never accept that. We said it clearly -- we will not accept any compromise, any negotiation, any solution with the current regime."

He also said the opposition won't offer concessions to Gadhafi.

"What kind of concessions can we offer a regime that is killing its people? We will either win or the other side will defeat. We have no other option."
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