BRITAIN and the United States are prepared to consider a swift exit of Colonel Gaddafi into exile.
Coalition nations gather in London today to plot a future for Libya without him. The official position of Britain and the US is for the dictator to stand trial at the International Criminal Court, but both are ready to accept that a deal under which he leaves the country quickly may be in Libya’s best interests.
Such a move has some European support, including from Italy, and could be facilitated by the African Union.
Rebel forces in Libya yesterday reached positions 100km from Sirte, the leader’s home town, entering for the first time areas with significant pro-Gaddafi pockets of support.
The rebel army – backed by renewed coalition airstrikes, including operations by British RAF Tornados – pushed on from Ras Lanuf, the limit of their previous advance at the start of March. Thanks to Western airstrikes, they have advanced almost 560km in 10 days.
David Cameron prepared for today’s summit by issuing a joint warning with President Sarkozy of France that NATO would continue airstrikes even if Colonel Gaddafi called a ceasefire.
The two leaders risked opening up splits in the international coalition by saying that no one should be fooled by Tripoli declaring a cessation of violence. They said military operations would continue until Libyans were safe from “the threat of attack”.
The use of the world “threat” in the joint statement goes further than the UN resolution authorising military action and is likely to fuel concerns in some capitals that London and France are intent on removing Colonel Gaddafi by force, an outcome not authorised by the UN.
Russia has declared that airstrikes are already breaching the terms of UN Security Council 1973, which sanctioned the use of force. Italy has called for a ceasefire and Turkey has offered to mediate. But Mr Cameron and Mr Sarkozy insisted that they would not be diverted from destroying Colonel Gaddafi’s military capability, or keeping up psychological pressure.
The Prime Minister tried to stay a step ahead of the Libyan leader, saying that he would not be surprised if the dictator called a ceasefire overnight to divert attention from the gathering of 35 countries at Lancaster House.
British officials said that it would be impossible to believe a ceasefire declaration, given that Colonel Gaddafi had broken two, and that his tanks would represent a threat to civilians as long as they remained intact.
However, the Cameron-Sarkozy statement was vague about the Libyan leader’s personal future, leaving the door open for an exit to a destination other than The Hague.
One British official said the Prime Minister’s view remained that the dictator should be “held to account”, but added: “In the end this has to be a process for the Libyan people.”
A UN official said that Libya’s future “has to be one without Gaddafi’s personal presence”. Asked about him going into exile, he said: “I cannot say it has been ruled out.”
On the battlefield, rebel scouts fought against Libyan government troops near Nawfaliyah and reported that government forces had mined the road ahead.
Women and children were said to be leaving Sirte as elite armoured units, led by Colonel Gaddafi’s son Saadi, took up positions to the south and east of the town.
Loyalist forces renewed their assault on Misrata, 240km west of Sirte, and seized part of it before declaring a ceasefire, the Libyan Government said. Rebel leaders claimed that part of the town had indeed fallen to the Tripoli regime.
Today’s summit in London is both an attempt to present a united front to Colonel Gaddafi and to show ordinary Libyans that they have the broadest possible backing, while also trying to ensure the international community learns from the lack of planning in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion.
There are several potential areas of disagreement, including how the world should respond to a ceasefire. Others include whether the anti-Gaddafi opposition should be recognised.