By Liz Sly, Karla Adam and William Branigin,
TRIPOLI, Libya — Rebels battling the regime of Moammar Gaddafi would accept a cease-fire if government forces pull out of besieged cities in western Libya and allow freedom of expression, the head of the opposition’s interim government said Friday.
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of the Transitional National Council in the rebel capital, Benghazi, stressed that the rebels remain steadfast in their demand that Gaddafi and his family leave power, and he said the rebels would need weapons deliveries if the more heavily armed and better organized government forces keep fighting.
In a joint news conference with United Nations special envoy Abdelilah al-Khatib, a former Jordanian foreign minister, Abdel Jalil said: “We have no objection to a cease-fire but on condition that Libyans in western cities have full freedom in expressing their views.” He said the rebels insist that “the Gaddafi brigades and forces withdraw from inside and outside Libyan cities to give freedom to the Libyan people to choose, and the world will see that they will choose freedom.”
The rebels’ ultimate goal remains the departure of Gaddafi, Abdel Jalil said. He told reporters: “Our aim is to liberate and have sovereignty over all of Libya with its capital in Tripoli.”
Abdel Jalil also called for the removal of “mercenary” troops under any cease-fire, Reuters news agency reported. He made the comments as Khatib visited the rebel stronghold for talks on a cease-fire and a political solution to the six-week-old Libyan crisis.
The talks came as Gaddafi’s forces continued to lay siege to Misurata, Libya’s third-largest city 130 miles east of Tripoli, while also pressing an offensive in eastern Libya that has driven the rebels out of several Mediterranean coastal towns and oil hubs this week.
In Misurata, where rebels have been under siege for more than a month, government forces shelled the city with tanks and mortars Friday and attacked shops and homes in the city center, Reuters reported.
About 100 miles south of Benghazi, rebels were guarding the western entrance to the strategic city of Ajdabiya while fighting reportedly continued around Brega, an oil refinery town about 50 miles to the southwest.
With the rebels again on the defensive after having recaptured Ajdabiya over the weekend, opposition officials took some solace in the defection Wednesday of Gaddafi’s foreign minister and former intelligence chief, Musa Kusa. They joined U.S. and British officials in hailing the move as evidence that the Gaddafi regime was crumbling from within, and rumors swirled around the Libyan capital Thursday that as many as 15 top regime officials had fled to Tunisia and were seeking refuge in the West.
But it was unclear whether Kusa’s departure would have an immediate effect on the balance of power on the ground or trigger the mass defections that U.S. officials said they were hoping for.
On Friday, a British government official told The Washington Post that Mohammed Ismail, a senior aide and discreet fixer for Gaddafi’s powerful son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, was in London recently to talk to government officials.
British media reports have speculated that Ismail was in London to open lines of communication with the West, perhaps to explore exit strategies for one or more members of the Gaddafi family.
A spokeswoman at the British Foreign Office declined to comment on the visit, saying: “We’re not going to provide running commentary on our contacts with Libyan officials.”
As a longtime Libyan insider, Kusa is the most senior official to abandon Gaddafi since the popular uprising began in February. Analysts and officials said he is likely to provide NATO officials valuable intelligence on the effects of the bombing campaign against Libyan forces as well as psychological insights into the morale of Gaddafi and his inner circle, which could be used to persuade other government officials to quit.
On Thursday, a second top Foreign Ministry official, Ali Abdel Salam al-Treki, announced his defection in a statement faxed to news agencies by his nephew. Treki is a former deputy foreign minister and had recently been named Libya’s representative to the United Nations.
The names of other putative defectors circulated throughout the day, with the prime minister, the oil minister, the head of Libya’s supreme legislative body — the People’s General Congress — and the chief of external intelligence among those variously reported to be waiting at an airport in Tunisia or in Tunis hotels for flights to London.
But the oil minister told the Reuters news agency by telephone that he was in his office in Tripoli, and the intelligence chief, Bouzeid Dorda, later denied he had defected, saying he would never “betray” Gaddafi. There also was no confirmation that any other officials had quit.
U.S. and British officials hailed Kusa’s surprise appearance in London on Wednesday and appealed to other Libyan officials to follow suit.
“If there was ever a sign that the inner circle of the regime is crumbling, it was the defection yesterday of Musa Kusa,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
British Prime Minister David Cameron called Kusa’s defection “a serious blow to Gaddafi’s authority.”
British officials said Kusa was cooperating voluntarily even though he had been given no promises of immunity from prosecution for crimes he is suspected to have committed during the decades he served as Libya’s intelligence chief and Gaddafi’s confidant.
But with Libya on a war footing as battles rage between rebel fighters and government forces in the east, the resignation of the country’s top diplomat may have no immediate effect. In eastern Libya, rebel leaders said they hoped Kusa would be brought to trial for his role in oppressing Libyans.
“Effective government is on hold, and Gaddafi is really governing on a crisis basis with his sons around him,” said David Hartwell, a Middle East and North Africa analyst for the defense analysis group IHS Jane’s. “While it’s very embarrassing for Gaddafi and will likely make him very distrustful of those around him, on the ground, he’s enjoying military success. So, it’s a mixed blessing.”
Kusa’s real value will come in the form of the insights he offers into the workings of the regime, the leadership’s state of mind, Gaddafi’s plans and who around him may be wavering, Hartwell said.
Kusa is also likely to possess important information about many of the atrocities committed by the regime in the years before Gaddafi, with Kusa’s help, engineered his rapprochement with the West in 2003.
Scottish prosecutors sought Thursday to question Kusa over his alleged role in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people, most of them Americans.
The Libyan government sought to play down Kusa’s defection, describing his decision as a personal one.
“Colonel Gaddafi is surrounded by many, many people who admire him and are prepared to work under his leadership,” said government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim. “People are saying, ‘So what if someone wants to step down. It’s his personal decision.’ The fight continues. We are ready to talk, ready for peace, but we are ready also to fight.”
Ibrahim, however, acknowledged that the defection, which came after Kusa requested leave to receive medical treatment in Tunisia, caught the government by surprise.
“We do believe Mr. Musa Kusa is genuinely tired, physically, emotionally and mentally, due to his age,” the spokesman said. “He did not notify us of his intention. We hope he recovers . . . and if he feels better, we welcome him with open arms.”
The Libyan news agency JANA issued a brief statement from Gaddafi late Thursday condemning the NATO-led bombing campaign and calling on world leaders to resign, but it gave no indication of where the statement was issued or where Gaddafi is. He has not been seen or heard from since March 23, though Libyan officials insist he is still living in his compound in Tripoli.
Adam, a special correspondent, reported from London. Branigin reported from Washington.