ZINTAN, Libya — France said Wednesday that Moammar Gaddafi could remain in Libya if he agreed to step down and renounce all leadership roles.
As diplomats struggle to find a political solution to end the country’s five-month civil war, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said of Gaddafi, “One of the scenarios effectively envisaged is that he stays in Libya on one condition, which I repeat: that he very clearly steps aside from Libyan political life.”
Juppe said any cease-fire and cessation of NATO bombing would depend on Gaddafi formally surrendering his roles as military and civilian leader of Libya. Though Gaddafi holds no elected office and often refers to himself simply as Brother Leader, he has ruled Libya for 42 years.
Juppe said that no talks were underway but that U.N. envoy Abdul Elah al-Khatib had been asked to coordinate contacts with Gaddafi envoys.
“The issue now is not whether Gaddafi goes, but when and how,” Juppe told French LCI TV.
U.S. officials met with Gaddafi representatives Saturday to press the Libyan leader to end the fighting. A senior Obama administration official with detailed knowledge of the meeting said, “The message was simple and unambiguous — Gaddafi must leave power so that a new political process can begin that reflects the will and aspirations of the Libyan people.”
Rebel military commanders fighting Gaddafi government forces in the mountains south of Tripoli have repeatedly rejected suggestions by European and African diplomats that Gaddafi be allowed to remain in the country.
“There is no turning back for us. We have gone too far,” said rebel commander Col. Muhammad Khabasha, who defected from the Libyan army to fight with the rebels. “If Gaddafi stays, he will kill us.”
Khabasha and other military commanders said they could not envision Gaddafi staying in Libya and not wielding power behind the scenes. He called such ideas naive. “Gaddafi controls the army, the security services, intelligence, everything,” Khabasha said.
“I don’t think there is a place for him. He is a criminal now,” said Souleiman Fortia, a member of the rebels’ Transitional National Council from the heavily damaged coastal city of Misurata, at a news conference in Paris.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy met Wednesday with Fortia and other rebel leaders from Misurata who are seeking weapons from France.
Rebel military and political leaders have expressed willingness to find a political solution that would end the fighting, which is now locked in a midsummer stalemate.
Rebel forces continue to battle to enter the oil refinery city of Brega, 482 miles east of Tripoli. The Gaddafi government says 500 rebels have died in the fighting over Brega; opposition sources put the death toll for the six days of fighting at 60.
In the western mountains, rebel forces remained stalled Wednesday along a ragged front line outside three towns. The rebels and Gaddafi’s forces exchange rocket fire daily, but there has been no movement in a week.