BENGHAZI, Libya – Libya’s rebels will agree to a cease-fire if Moammar Gadhafi pulls his military forces out of cities and allows peaceful protests against his regime, an opposition leader said Friday.
Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the opposition’s interim governing council based in Benghazi, spoke during a joint press conference with U.N. envoy Abdelilah Al-Khatib. Al-Khatib is visiting the rebels’ de facto stronghold of Benghazi in hopes of reaching a political solution to the crisis embroiling the North African nation.
Abdul-Jalil said the rebels’ condition for a cease-fire is “that the Gadhafi 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 U.N. resolution that authorized international airstrikes against Libya called for Gadhafi and the rebels to end hostilities. Gadhafi announced a cease-fire immediately but has shown no sign of heeding it. His forces continue to attack rebels in the east, where the opposition in strongest, and have besieged the only major rebel-held city in the west, Misrata.
Abdul-Jalil said the regime must withdraw its forces and lift all sieges.
He stressed the ultimate goal was Gadhafi’s ouster.
“Our aim is to liberate and have sovereignty over all of Libya with its capital in Tripoli,” he said.
The U.N. said Al-Khatib, arrived Thursday in Tripoli.
Forces loyal to Libya’s leader of nearly 42 years spent much of this week pushing the rebels back about 100 miles (160 kilometers) along the coast, and the opposition was trying to regroup. The rebels had mortars Friday, weapons they previously appeared to have lacked, and on Thursday night they drove in a convoy with at least eight rocket launchers — more artillery than usual.
The rebels also appeared to have more communication equipment such as radios and satellite phones, and were working in more organized units, in which military defectors were each leading six or seven volunteers.
The rebels’ losses this week, and others before airstrikes began March 19, underlined that their equipment, training and organization were far inferior to those of Gadhafi’s forces. The recent changes appear to be an attempt to correct, or at least ease, the imbalance.
A Libyan opposition official said rebels will be able to buy more arms thanks to an oil deal they reached with the tiny Arab nation of Qatar.
Ali Tarhouni, who handles finances for the opposition’s National Transitional Council, said Qatar has agreed to market oil currently in storage in rebel-controlled areas of southeastern Libya.
Tarhouni didn’t say when the deal was signed or when oil shipments will begin. He said one sticking point is how to truck the oil out of the country.
Tarhouni said money from oil sales will be put into an escrow account the opposition will use to pay for weapons, food, medicine, fuel and other needs.
It was unclear where the front line was Friday. Rebels were holding journalists back at the western gate of Ajdabiya, far from the fighting.
Thursday the opposition had moved into Brega, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Ajdabiya, before Gadhafi’s forces pushed them out.
Gadhafi’s greatest losses this week were not military but political. Two members of his inner circle, including his foreign minister, abandoned him Wednesday and Thursday, setting off speculation about other officials who may be next. The defections could sway people who have stuck with Gadhafi despite the uprising that began Feb. 15 and the international airstrikes aimed at keeping the autocrat from attacking his own people.
Libyan state TV aired a phone interview with intelligence chief Bouzeid Dorda to knock down rumors that he also left Gadhafi.
“I am in Libya and will remain here steadfast in the same camp of the revolution despite everything,” Dorda said. “I never thought to cross the borders or violate commitment to the people, the revolution and the leader.”
Gadhafi struck a defiant stance in a statement Thursday, saying he’s not the one who should go — it’s the Western leaders who attacking his military with airstrikes who should resign immediately. Gadhafi’s message was undercut by its delivery — a scroll across the bottom of state TV as he remained out of sight.
The White House said the strongman’s inner circle was clearly crumbling with the loss of Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa, who flew from Tunisia to England on Wednesday. Koussa is privy to all the inner workings of the regime, so his departure could open the door for some hard intelligence, though Britain refused to offer him immunity from prosecution.
Ali Abdessalam Treki, a former foreign minister and U.N. General Assembly president, announced his departure on several opposition websites the next day, saying “It is our nation’s right to live in freedom and democracy and enjoy a good life.”
Gadhafi accused the leaders of the countries attacking his forces of being “affected by power madness.”
“The solution for this problem is that they resign immediately and their peoples find alternatives to them,” the Libya state news agency quoted him as saying.
His government’s forces have regained momentum on the rapidly moving front line of the battle with opposition forces, retaking the town of Brega after pushing the rebels miles back toward the territory they hold in eastern Libya.
The rebels said they were undaunted, taking heart from the departures in Gadhafi’s inner circle.
“We believe that the regime is crumbling from within,” opposition spokesman Mustafa Gheriani said in Benghazi, the rebels’ de facto capital.
Libyan officials, who initially denied Koussa’s defection, said he had resigned because he was sick with diabetes and high blood pressure. Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said Koussa was given permission to go to Tunisia, but the regime was surprised to learn he had flown to London.
“I talked to many people and this is not a happy piece of news, but people are saying, ‘So what? If someone wants to step down that’s his decision,’” Ibrahim said.
Nations behind the campaign of international airstrikes that have hobbled Libya’s military hailed Koussa’s resignation as a sign of weakness in Gadhafi’s reign. They’re hoping for nonmilitary solution, in part because the rebels have been seriously outgunned.
The U.S. has ruled out using ground troops in Libya but it is considering providing arms to the rebels.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, however, told Congress on Thursday that the U.S. still knows little about the rebels, and that if anyone arms and trains them it should be some other country.
Asked by a lawmaker whether U.S. involvement might inevitably mean “boots on the ground” in Libya, Gates replied, “Not as long as I am in this job.”
NATO is among those saying a new U.N. resolution would be required to arm rebels, though Britain and the U.S. disagree. Several world leaders oppose arming rebels, including Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said in London that it could “create an environment which could be conducive to terrorism.”