Indirect talks on the future of Libya have been taking place between representatives of Moammar Kadafi's government and rebels based in the eastern city of Benghazi, a spokesman for the opposition said Wednesday.
Mahmoud Shammam of the Transitional National Council said the private mediation efforts, which have yet to bear fruit, have been held in South Africa and France through intermediaries. He said the opposition has held firm that Kadafi and his family be excluded from any future government, but added it was possible the dictator could live out his last years in Libya at an isolated location.
"We are engaging in discussion with some people who have contact with people from the regime," Shammam told The Times during a brief interview on the sidelines of a talk he delivered in the Lebanese capital. "We are contacting them on the mechanism of the departure of Kadafi. We don't negotiate the future of Libya."
United Nations officials in late May announced attempts to organize indirect talks between the rebels and Kadafi, and Kadafi's spokespeople have said talks have been ongoing.
The oil-rich, North African state has been torn asunder by a four-month uprising against Kadafi's four-decade rule. Rebels backed by an increasingly controversial NATO-led bombing campaign hold sway in the country's east; in the third-largest city, Misurata; and in the mountains southwest of the capital, Tripoli, near the country's border with Tunisia.
Recently the cash-strapped rebels have been making the rounds of international capitals, hoping to gain access to Kadafi's frozen assets or to win over international financiers to fund the armed rebellion and pay bills. "We have not received a cent from the international community," other than in-kind donations of food and weapons, Shammam said at a talk organized by the Carnegie Middle East Center, a branch of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on whose advisory board he serves.
He also pledged a commitment to a democratic Libya once Kadafi is ousted and promised that all 32 transitional authority executive committee members, including him, would recuse themselves from political life for four years in any post-Kadafi government.
Shammam said the authority had pledged to uphold civil liberties and the rights of women. He spoke of a democratic flowering in the rebel-controlled east, where he said the number of newspapers had jumped from four to 84. "We believe in civil society," he said.
Shammam downplayed accusations made by Kadafi and acknowledged by U.S. officials that some members of Al Qaeda may have infiltrated the rebel east. Islamists, including extremist groups such as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which fought alongside Osama bin Laden, would be permitted to take part in politics but only if they abide by democratic ground rules, Shammam said.
"If they deviate from the democratic process, they will suffer the same fate as Kadafi," he told an audience at Beirut's Phoenicia Hotel.
Officials in the West have become nervous about the legality and mandate of the NATO bombing campaign, whose stated purpose is to protect civilians from violence by Kadafi's security forces. The campaign has also caused some civilian and rebel deaths and resulted in a military stalemate.
If the North Atlantic Treaty Organization gets cold feet, the war will nonetheless continue, Shammam said. "If NATO leaves, we will fight," he said. "We don't have any other choice."
Shammam said the opposition was ready to negotiate with "any technocrat or Libyan official from the regime who is not tainted by blood, to include them in any interim future government which would lead to elections."
He said the indirect talks have been inconclusive. "Kadafi sends somebody to Paris," he said. "We, through a third party, talk with them. And we say to them, let us discuss what is the best way to discuss Kadafi and his family's departure."
Kadafi has publicly ruled out stepping aside and one of his sons has said the government would fight to the death. Shammam said rebels often receive "conflicting answers" from Kadafi's envoys.
"Sometimes we are close and sometimes we are far," he said. "It depends on the mood of Kadafi himself."
The big stumbling block in any talks, he said, is Kadafi himself. "He has to accept to leave or he has to accept to be held in a remote area of Libya," he said. "We don't mind an internationally supervised stay in one of Libya's oases."