Libya’s prime minister on Thursday said the government had asked the United Nations and African Union to prepare and monitor a ceasefire, but ruled out the departure of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, as government forces bombarded the revolt-held city of Misrata with mortars.
“We have asked the United Nations and the African Union to set a date and specific hours for a ceasefire, to send international observers and take the necessary measures” to end combat, said Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi, according to Agence-France Presse.
Western leaders, gathering for a Group of Eight summit in the French seaside resort of Deauville, were expected to reiterate their determination to force Mr. Qaddafi out.
Earlier, African leaders gathered at a Libya-focused summit in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa called for an end to NATO air strikes to pave the way for a political solution to the north African nation’s protracted conflict.
But NATO insisted it would keep up its air raids in Libya until Mr. Qaddafi’s forces stop attacking civilians and until the regime’s proposed ceasefire is matched by its actions on the ground.
“If the Qaddafi regime is serious about finding a solution, all it needs to do is end its attacks on civilians, withdraw its forces, and permit full, safe and unhindered access to humanitarian aid,” a NATO official told AFP.
London-based daily The Independent reported on Thursday that the Libyan premier was sending international leaders a message proposing an immediate UN-monitored ceasefire in Libya.
According to a letter seen by the newspaper, Mr. Qaddafi's regime was ready to enter unconditional talks with rebels, declare an amnesty for both sides and draft a new constitution.
The Spanish government confirmed it had received a message to that effect.
The NATO official, however, said the western alliance had received no such request and noted that the Qaddafi regime had made “similar statements” before, only to continue its attacks on civilians.
“NATO will keep up the pressure on the regime until these steps are implemented in a credible, verifiable and sustained way,” he said.
Forces loyal to the 68-year-old colonel, meanwhile, bombarded the revolt-held city of Misrata with mortars.
A Reuters reporter in Misrata, scene of some of the fiercest fighting in Libya’s three-month-old conflict, said the mortar attack killed one protester and wounded five.
Earlier, the sound of exploding mortar shells could be heard every few minutes in the western outskirts of Misrata and there was a steady stream of ambulances. At Misrata’s hospital, opposition fighters mourned their dead colleague.
Suleim Al-Faqih, one of the protesters, told Reuters the clashes started when protesters attacked pro-Qaddafi forces who were using an excavator to dig a trench to block a road. “We fired on them and advanced. They fell back and started firing mortars,” he said.
White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, speaking in Deauville at the G8 summit, said the United States did not see the new Libyan ceasefire offer as credible because it was not accompanied by action.
Libya was not complying with UN demands and its forces were still attacking population centers, so the United States would continue with the military campaign, he told reporters.
Gaddafi’s security forces cracked down ferociously when thousands of Libyans protested against his rule of the six-million people nation. NATO missiles and warplanes have been bombing targets in Libya for two months under a UN mandate to protect civilians from attack.
Protesters now control the east of the country, around their main stronghold of Benghazi, and pockets of land in the West.
But the conflict has reached stalemate on the ground, with the rebels unable to advance towards Tripoli and NATO powers—wary of getting sucked into new conflicts after their experience in Iraq and Afghanistan—refusing to put troops on the ground.
Nevertheless, Western officials say they are confident that they are gradually loosening Gaddafi’s grip on power through a combination of sanctions and military and diplomatic pressure.
Britain’s defense ministry said its Typhoon and Tornado aircraft had used Paveway guided bombs to attack a military vehicle depot at Tiji, in western Libya, which was being used to support attacks on the revolt-held Western mountains region.
Mr. Qaddafi denies that his troops target civilians and say his security forces were forced to act to put down a rebellion by criminals and members of Al Qaeda.
Anxious to break the stalemate in Libya, some Western powers are pressing for NATO to intensify its operations. France has said it will deploy attack helicopters, which are better able to pick out targets on the ground than high-altitude aircraft.
Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, after talks with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, said Britain was considering the deployment of its own attack helicopters.
Mr. Sarkozy is hosting the G8 summit and is expected to use it to press other powers to ramp up military and diplomatic pressure on Colonel Qaddafi to quit.
Attempts to build a consensus at the summit on Libya may be prevented by Russia, which opposes the NATO bombing.
In Moscow, a foreign ministry spokesman said the use of NATO helicopters in Libya would go beyond the United Nations resolution which mandated intervention to protect civilians.
(Abeer Tayel, an editor at Al Arabiya, can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)