TRIPOLI – A Libyan minister told Greece’s prime minister on Sunday that Tripoli wanted fighting to end, while a Turkish ship evacuated wounded from the besieged city of Misrata, leaving thousands more pleading to be rescued.
With rebels and Gaddafi forces seemingly at a stalemate in eastern Libya and civilians trapped by fighting in the west, diplomatic efforts have intensified to seek an end to the war.
Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi flew to Athens to convey a message from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Obeidi told Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou that Libya wanted the fighting to end, a Greek government official told Reuters.
“It seems that the Libyan authorities are seeking a solution,” Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas told reporters. He said Obeidi planned to travel on to Malta and Turkey.
Greece has enjoyed good relations with Gaddafi for a number of years. Papandreou has been talking by phone with officials in Tripoli as well as the leaders of Qatar, Turkey and Britain over the last two days.
The U.N.-mandated military intervention that began on March 19 was meant to protect civilians caught up in fighting between Gaddafi’s forces and the rebels.
Underlining the desperate plight of civilians trapped in western Libya, a Turkish ship that sailed into Misrata to rescue some 250 wounded had to leave in hurry after crowds pressed forward on the dockside hoping to escape.
“It’s a very hard situation … We had to leave early,” said Turkish consular official Ali Akin after the ship stopped to pick up more wounded in the eastern rebel stronghold Benghazi.
Turkey’s foreign minister ordered the ship into Misrata after it spent four days waiting in vain for permission to dock.
It arrived under cover from 10 Turkish air force F-16 fighter planes and two navy frigates, Akin told Reuters.
STALEMATE IN BREGA
Neither Gaddafi’s troops nor the disorganised rebel force have been able to gain the upper hand in eastern Libya, despite Western air power in effect aiding the insurgents.
Both sides have become bogged down in fighting over the eastern oil town of Brega, a sparsely populated settlement spread over more than 25 km (15 miles).
Yet western countries, wary of becoming too entangled in another war after campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, have ruled out sending ground troops to help rebels push west — which could allow them to relieve Misrata and move on to Tripoli.
That in turn has raised talk of diplomatic efforts to try to ease the plight of civilians either caught up in fighting or facing shortages of food and fuel in the west.
“Various scenarios are being discussed,” said one diplomat. “Everyone wants a quick solution.”
He cautioned that any solution that led, for example, include Gaddafi handing over power to one of his sons might lead to a partition of Libya — a possibility western countries ruled out before they launched military strikes.
In another strand of diplomatic contacts, a team of British diplomats headed by ambassador to Rome Christopher Prentice, arrived in Libya to meet rebel leaders in Benghazi.
A British foreign ministry statement said the team would seek more information about the rebels’ Interim National Council, “its aims and more broadly what is happening in Libya.”
The rebels, meanwhile, named a “crisis team” with Gaddafi’s former interior minister as their armed forces chief of staff, and attempted to stiffen an enthusiastic but untrained and ill-disciplined volunteer army by putting professional soldiers at its head.
“We are reorganizing our ranks. We have formed our first brigade. It is entirely formed from ex-military defectors and people who’ve come back from retirement,” former air force major Jalid al-Libie told Reuters in Benghazi.
He said he could not reveal numbers, adding: “It’s quality that matters.”
Outside Brega, better rebel discipline was already in evidence on Sunday. The less disciplined volunteers, and journalists, were being kept several kilometers (miles) east of the front. The insurgents were also deploying heavier weapons.
Without a backbone of regular forces, the lightly-armed volunteer caravan has spent days dashing back and forth along the coast road on Brega’s outskirts, scrambling away in pick-ups when Gaddafi’s forces attack with rockets.
NATO has conducted at least 547 sorties since it took command of Libya operations on March 31, including more than 200 strike missions. It also has 21 ships patrolling the Mediterranean Sea to enforce an arms embargo.
SHELLING IN MISRATA
In the west, Gaddafi’s forces continued to besiege Misrata, shelling a building that had been used to treat wounded, a resident said, killing one person and wounding more.
Misrata, Libya’s third city, rose up with other towns against Gaddafi’s rule in mid-February, but it is now surrounded by government troops after a violent crackdown put an end to most protests elsewhere in the west of the country.
A doctor who gave his name as Ramadan told Reuters by telephone from the city that 160 people, mostly civilians, had been killed in fighting in Misrata over the past seven days.
Ramadan, a British-based doctor who said he arrived in Misrata three days ago on a humanitarian mission, had no figure for the total toll since fighting began six weeks ago.
“But every week between 100 or 140 people are reported killed — multiply this by six and our estimates are 600 to 1,000 deaths since the fighting started,” he said.
After weeks of shelling and encirclement, Gaddafi’s forces appear to be gradually loosening the rebels’ hold on Misrata. Rebels say they still control the city center and the port, but government troops are pressing in.
Accounts from Misrata cannot be independently verified because Libyan authorities are not allowing journalists to report freely from the city, 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli.
Gaddafi’s troops are also mopping up resistance in the mountainous southwest of Tripoli.
Government forces shelled the small town of Yafran, southwest of the capital on Sunday, killing two people, Arabiya television reported, quoting a witness.
They also shelled the city of Zintan, about 160 km (100 miles) southwest of the capital, a resident said.
“Gaddafi’s brigades bombarded Zintan with tanks in the early hours on Sunday. There has been random bombardment of the northern area (of Zintan). They are still besieging the town,” the resident, called Abdulrahman, told Reuters.