Libyan leaders defiant as Russians seek deal

June 16, 2011

Russia’s envoy to Africa visited the country’s battered capital Thursday in a last-ditch effort to broker a negotiated settlement to a war that is increasingly weighing on the NATO governments seeking to bring down Moammar Gaddafi’s regime.

As alliance aircraft continued to bomb Tripoli, Libyan officials showed few signs of budging and suggested they are enjoying the domestic heat the Obama administration is taking over the military intervention.

“We are still strong,” Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi told Western journalists at a news conference Thursday afternoon. “We are still able to resist and stand firm. All of us are with brother Moammar Gaddafi.”

Western and Arab nations that have recognized the Benghazi-based rebel leadership as the country’s new interim government are “betting on the wrong horse,” the prime minister said. He added that Libyan officials are “following the discussions” on Capitol Hill, where opposition to U.S. involvement in NATO’s Libya mission is growing.

Mikhail Margelov, the Kremlin’s envoy to Africa, expressed hope Thursday that rebel leaders will be persuaded to allow Gaddafi to remain in Libya as a “private citizen.”

“The Arab world is known for its tradition of forgiveness and reconciliation,” he told the Russian news agency Interfax. “Many of the once odious figures continue residing in their countries as private individuals even though they were deposed at one time.”

Rebels leaders called the idea ludicrous.

“No one from the opposition accepts that he can stay in Libya,” said Guma el-Gamaty, a London-based spokesman for the Transitional National Council in Benghazi. “Gaddafi staying in Libya is Gaddafi staying in power.”

In a sign of growing global concern about the pace and progress of NATO’s Libyan mission, China and Russia on Thursday issued a joint statement calling for “meticulous adherence” to the U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized military force to protect civilians.

Meanwhile, Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam told an Italian newspaper this week that his father would be amenable to internationally supervised elections later this year. Saif al-Islam, known as a reform-minded figure whose advice has gone unheeded in the past, told Corriere Della Sera that he had “no doubt” that an “overwhelming” majority of voters would support his father.

The senior Gaddafi has long railed against traditional democratic systems, calling them a farce.

After a relative lull in large airstrikes in the capital, NATO jets shook Tripoli before dawn Thursday, bombing a small, unoccupied hotel next to a government complex. Libyan officials said the compound was a center devoted to the study of Gaddafi’s Green Book, which outlines the autocrat’s peculiar vision of socialist governance.

Despite the bellicose tone of Libyan leaders, Tripoli residents appear to be increasingly apprehensive as the bombing campaign continues and the rebel troops make slow progress in their aim of advancing toward Tripoli.

A fuel shortage has turned this once-bustling capital into a ghost town. Many residents who live near government buildings have boarded up their windows, and passersby who encounter journalists on chaperoned trips seem increasingly willing to make discreet yet unmistakable gestures indicating their disdain of the regime.

A growing number of Libyan leaders appear to be operating out of the luxurious hotel where government officials force Western journalists to stay. Mahmoudi, the prime minister, told journalists Thursday that he hoped NATO “won’t bomb the hotel you’re staying at.”

It was unclear whether his next line was a joke or a veiled threat: “Perhaps it would be a good idea to disperse you around many hotels so they can’t bomb them all.”

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