A high-ranking U.S. delegation held direct talks last weekend with representatives of Moammar Gaddafi’s government, according to U.S. officials, who said the meeting was intended to deliver a “stern message” to the Libyan leader to step down.

The talks, held Saturday in an undisclosed Middle Eastern country, were thought to be the highest-level exchange between the two countries since NATO began its bombing campaign against Libyan government targets in March. But two U.S. officials familiar with the session insisted that no negotiations took place.

“It was the delivery of a message,” said a senior Obama administration official with detailed knowledge of the meeting. “The message was simple and unambiguous and the same message we deliver in public: Gaddafi must leave power so that a new political process can begin that reflects the will and aspirations of the Libyan people.”

Both U.S. officials agreed separately to discuss the secret meeting on the condition of anonymity.

Libyan leaders have made diplomatic overtures to several Western countries in recent days, intimating that Gaddafi is prepared to begin negotiating a possible political solution to the country’s worst crisis since he seized power in 1969. But while encouraged by the Libyan outreach, U.S. officials have insisted that any negotiations on the country’s future be conducted through a U.N. special envoy.

“We decided to do it face to face, to make clear that there was no hope of using any other separate channels,” a senior State Department official told reporters in New Delhi, where Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived Monday as part of a diplomatic swing through Europe and Asia.

The meeting was “a one-time thing,” the official said.

A Libyan government spokesman confirmed the talks, describing them as a “first-step dialogue” that could lead to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. “We want to take further steps,” the spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, told reporters in the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

Warrick reported from Washington.