TRIPOLI, Libya -- – Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi isn't going anywhere and his leadership is not up for negotiation, the prime minister said on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Ali Al-Mahmoudi, speaking at a news conference after meeting a visiting U.N. special representative, dismissed the idea that Qaddafi would step aside.
"The Libyan population has made itself clear, they are not negotiating the future of Muammar Qaddafi," he said.
Asked by Fox News if he had told U.N. special envoy Abdul Elah Al-Khatib that Qaddafi's position was not up for negotiation, Mahmoudi said: "Exactly."
The opposition in Libya insists that Qaddafi must go, but the leader's supporters say they’ll fight to the death to keep him in place. It now appears that the civil war in the North African country has turned into a standoff over the fate of a man loved by some -- and loathed by others.
The Libyan leader hasn’t been seen for weeks. Not since NATO began bombing his compounds in the capital Tripoli. But intense negotiations outside the country, including with American diplomats, seem to be aimed at ending the impasse over his future.
The diplomatic cogs are turning slowly. Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague has now said the embattled leader can stay as long as he steps aside. U.N. envoy Al-Khatib, who traveled to Tripoli Saturday to seek a political solution, is expected to visit today for further talks.
The rebel leadership claims Qaddafi will always be in charge as long as he remains close to his Tripoli power base and pulls the military’s strings.
Meanwhile, the bloodshed goes on. International journalists, including Fox News, were bused to the frontline city of Zlitin on Monday to witness what government minders call, “NATO aggression.”
At the first stop on the outskirts of the city, situated 100 miles east of the capital and just 35 miles west of the rebel-controlled city of Misratah, reporters were shown the ruins of food warehouses destroyed by bombs.
One storehouse containing thousands of tons of flour was on fire, and the local fire department seemed helpless to stop it. In other shortage sheds, massive holes were punched through the reinforced ceilings destroying the rice and cooking oil stored below.
Nearby, a piece of ordnance that appeared to be still intact was embedded in the ground. Guards at the facility were said to have been wounded in the nighttime raid. Angry locals wanted to know why NATO would want to bomb the country’s food reserves.
Journalists were then shown a site that city officials said had been a medical center conducting health checks and X-rays. The local officials said up to eight people were working at the clinic at the time and several were still unaccounted for. Old X-rays and patient records could be clearly seen in the rubble, but there was no evidence the clinic had been operating as a hospital. Ambulances and orderlies lined up to take what equipment could be salvaged.
The final stop on the tour was a government primary school said to have been leveled several days earlier. Fox News has no way of independently verifying what government minders tell us or claims by the local people who continually chant anti-NATO slogans in our presence and pledge undying loyalty to Qaddafi.
The city of Zlitin itself seemed eerily quiet. There were few people on the streets and shops were closed. This city is a key objective for the rebels and the last major urban center before the capital.
Late in the afternoon the battle to take the city reached the touring journalists. Just a few kilometers away we could hear the constant thud of artillery which, it was suggested, originated from NATO warships off the Libyan coast. Then the unmistakeable mushroom cloud of an airstrike. Not long after, one or two vehicles raced by carrying Qaddafi militia away from the direction of the bombing. At this point those leading our group decided it was time to leave the area and return to the capital.
NATO jets have pounded troops loyal to the regime for months, and it’s this air cover that has allowed the opposition to make slow progress. However, the destroyed food storage facility and the medical clinic reinforces a strong belief here that NATO has run out of military objectives to hit and softer targets are now in its sights.
The European military alliance has requested more unmanned drones from the U.S. to help find Qaddafi’s last remaining artillery, tanks and command and control centers. It’s not hard to see why as you travel through the Libyan countryside. The regime’s firepower has gone to ground. Civilian vehicles manned by men in uniforms are parked, camouflaged in olive groves and under buildings making them almost impossible to see from the air.
The only visible sign of Qaddafi’s strong arm are the regular checkpoints where volunteers armed with assault rifles search vehicles heading in either direction.
Five months into this conflict it’s hard to see a quick military victory for either side. Sanctions, NATO air power and the rebel’s ground attacks are putting immense pressure on the leader, but it’s still a long way to go to Tripoli.
Like the debate over Qaddafi’s future, the ground war has reached something of a stalemate. Not surprising then that compromises are beginning to be talked about.