A senior U.S. diplomat held talks with representatives of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi’s regime for the first time since the NATO air war began four months ago, but the two governments gave sharply different accounts of the exchange.
Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of State for the Near East, met with the Libyan delegation on Saturday, State Department officials said Monday. They said Feltman delivered a firm message that Kadafi must give up power, and they insisted the meeting was not a negotiation.
“We wanted to deliver a crystal-clear message face to face,” one official said in an email.
“This was a one-time thing,” the official added. He said Washington was not setting up a back channel to talk to Kadafi’s regime. The State Department officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.
A Libyan government spokesman, on the other hand, told reporters in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, that the meeting was “a first-step dialogue” to help repair relations between Libya and the United States.
“This is a first step and we want to take further steps,” Musa Ibrahim said, according to the Associated Press. “We don’t want to be stuck in the past. We want to move forward all the time.”
The talks took place a day after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced at an international conference in Istanbul, Turkey, that the U.S. would join more than 30 other nations in extending diplomatic relations to the rebel coalition that is fighting to topple Kadafi’s regime.
State Department officials said the meeting was held in a Middle Eastern country outside Libya, but they declined to say where. Feltman was accompanied by Gene Cretz, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and Derek Chollet, a senior director at the National Security Council.
U.S. officials said Feltman’s goal was to convey that international demands for Kadafi’s ouster after four decades in power have not changed since the North Atlantic Treaty Organization began bombing Kadafi’s forces March 19 under a United Nations mandate.
“In the aftermath of Istanbul, we decided to deliver directly and unequivocally the views of the international community and their steadfast resolve to see this crisis through to the end,” another State Department official said in an email.
Kadafi’s aides and supporters have made contacts in recent weeks with several foreign governments. Some meetings reportedly included discussion of Kadafi leaving the country, or accepting internal exile. But U.S. officials say Kadafi has shown no indication that he is preparing to give up power, and they describe the diplomatic signals emerging from Tripoli as murky and ambiguous.
As the NATO air war continues far longer than expected, some Western governments are facing financial and political pressure to wind down the effort as soon as possible.