A secret meeting in Tunis Saturday between high level US officials and Libyan government representatives renewed speculation that embattled leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi is ready to step down.
Reports that the colonel was willing to relinquish his despotic, four-decade long rule with conditions first surfaced in March, and then less than a week ago when French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said Libyan emissaries had told him Mr. Qaddafi “ is prepared to leave.”
The meeting between the US officials and Libyan government envoys was described by the Libyans as a first step in the process of reconciliation but by US officials as a final warning that the colonel had to go.
“It is a first step,” said Libyan government spokesman Musa Ibrahim. “We welcome further steps. We are ready to discuss ideas to move forward, make sure that people are not harmed any more, that this conflict comes to an end and that the damaged relationship between Libya and the (United) States and other NATO countries can be repaired.”
In an interview with Le Figaro newspaper last week, Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi said his government was willing to “negotiate without conditions,” a political settlement that did could include Mr. Qaddafi’s departure, provided NATO stop it’s bombing of Qaddafi support targets.
“You don’t create democracy under bombs ... it doesn’t work like that,” he said, adding that the colonel would abide by an agreement that called on him to step down. “The Guide will not intervene in discussions. He is ready to respect the decision of the people,” he said.
The three-hour meeting between US and Libyan officials on Saturday came a day after the US formally recognized the opposition National Transitional Council as the legitimate governing authority in Libya, clearing the way for it to receive up to $33 billion in frozen Libyan assets in the US.
The meeting was attended by US ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, who was recalled in December after embarrassing US diplomatic cables were made public by the WikiLeaks anti government secrecy Website, and Jeffrey Feltman, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs. A third US envoy at the meeting was not identified.
A senior US official said privately that the sole purpose of the face to face meeting with Qaddafi envoys was to reaffirm that the colonel had to go. “This was not a negotiation. It was the delivery of a message,” the official said. “We have no plans to meet again, because the message has been delivered.”
It is believed that Col. Qaddafi is trying to work out a favorable arrangement for his departure such as details of whether he could remain in the country or would be forced into exile. He also wants assurances that he would not be prosecuted as a war criminal for hundreds civilian deaths that have occurred at the hands of his troops during four months of protests against his rule.
Mr. Qaddafi reportedly made an offer in March, shortly after rebellion against his rule started, to quit provided that that his safety and that of his family would be guaranteed and no criminal charges brought against him. The rebels opposing him rejected that offer as offering him too honorable an exit.
However, with the colonel still clinging to power four months into a sustained NATO bombing campaign to dislodge him, it is clear a political settlement may be the only way out.
He could follow the lead of other despots before him, such as Haiti’s Jean-Claude Duvalier, and take the millions of dollars in Libyan assets he is believed to control and go into exile in a life of luxury on the French Riviera. It is not known whether France has made Mr. Qaddafi such an offer.
Nor is it clear it would work any better for him than it did for “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who went from life in a villa in Mougins, high above Cannes and a chateau outside Paris, and luxury automobiles, to a life of hitching rides with friends and counting on their wives to cook him meals.
Mr. Duvalier recently returned to Haiti.
(Nathaniel Sheppard Jr. is a veteran national and foreign correspondent who worked at The Chicago Tribune and The New York Times. He can be reached at: email@example.com)