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Top diplomats agree: Gadhafi must go

World powers agree Tuesday that Moammar Gadhafi should step down after 42 years as Libya's ruler but did not discuss arming the rebels who are seeking to oust him.
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/ Source: news services

A sweeping array of world powers — from the United States to the United Nations, from the Arab League to NATO — spoke from the same script Tuesday in forcefully calling for Libya's Moammar Gadhafi to step down. Some even hinted at secret talks on Gadhafi's exit.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and British Foreign Secretary William Hague led the crisis talks in London between 40 countries and institutions, all seeking an endgame aimed at halting Gadhafi's bloody onslaught against Libya's people.

Also Tuesday, Clinton met for a second time Tuesday with a leader of the Libyan political opposition but said the United States has made no decision about whether to arm the Libyan rebels. The issue did not come up at the crisis talks, she and others said.

Although the NATO-led airstrikes on Gadhafi's forces that began March 19 aren't aimed at toppling him, dozens of nations agreed in the talks that Libya's future does not include the dictator at the helm.

President Barack Obama said in a series of interviews Tuesday on NBC, ABC and CBS that the objective of a U.S. and allied military campaign is to apply steady pressure on Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi.

"And so our expectation is that as we continue to apply steady pressure, not only militarily but also through these other means, that Gaddafi will ultimately step down," the president told NBC.

"Gadhafi has lost the legitimacy to lead, so we believe he must go. We're working with the international community to try to achieve that outcome," Clinton told reporters in London.

As she spoke, U.S. officials announced that American ships and submarines in the Mediterranean had unleashed a barrage of cruise missiles at Libyan missile storage facilities in the Tripoli area late Monday and early Tuesday — the heaviest attack in days.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle echoed Clinton's point.

"One thing is quite clear and has to be made very clear to Gadhafi: His time is over. He must go," Westerwelle said. "We must destroy his illusion that there is a way back to business as usual if he manages to cling to power."

Both Clinton and the representatives of Libya's opposition — who held a raft of talks on the margins of the London summit — acknowledged there were few signs that Gadhafi is heeding those demands. There was no immediate comment from Russia, which abstained in the U.N. vote authorizing the no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians.

"He will have to make a decision," Clinton said. "And that decision, so far as we're aware, has not yet been made."

Diplomats rejected suggestions that Gadhafi could be granted immunity if he accepted the call to retreat but said work was under way to find a possible sanctuary for him.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said negotiations on securing Gadhafi's exit were being conducted with "absolute discretion" and that there were options on the table that hadn't yet been formalized.

"What is indispensable is that there be countries that are willing to welcome Gadhafi and his family, obviously to end this situation which otherwise could go on for some time," he said.

Frattini had said earlier that he hoped some nation would offer a proposal.

But the Italian diplomat insisted there was no option of immunity for Gadhafi. "We cannot promise him a 'safe-conduct' pass," he stressed.

Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Kusa visited Tunisia briefly, but there was no word if this was linked to the secret talks.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe insisted it was up to the Libyan people to decide the dictator's fate. "They have to organize the future of their country and to decide what Gadhafi will become," he said.

Hague said Tuesday's meeting brought clarity between allies and offered a key opportunity to discuss Libya's post-Gadhafi future with Libya's opposition Interim National Council, whose envoy Mahmoud Jibril held meetings with Hague, Clinton, British Prime Minister David Cameron and several European foreign ministers.

Guma El-Gamaty, a Libyan opposition official, told reporters in London that Gadhafi must be held to account for his brutalizing of civilians — at a Libyan court, at the International Criminal Court, or both.

"These crimes must not go unpunished. They should be punished at a fair trial held in a fair court," El-Gamaty said.

U.N. special envoy Abdelilah al-Khatib, a former Jordanian foreign minister, will be returning to Libya to hold talks with both Gadhafi's regime and opposition figures. And the U.S. and France are both sending diplomats to the rebel-held Libyan city of Benghazi to bolster ties with opposition leaders.

Those at the summit agreed to form an international contact group of at least a dozen nations and institutions aimed at coordinating political action and liaising with Libya's opposition. Sweden, which not a member of NATO, said it would send eight fighter jets to help enforce the U.N.-authorized no-fly zone over Libya. Turkey said it also will likely join the group.

Still, the summit left a number of important questions open: Nations didn't discuss whether or not they should — or legally can — supply weapons to Libya's rebel fighters; there was no open discussion of how to lure Gadhafi into exile and Qatar gave few details on its offer to help rebels sell crude oil on the international market.

British diplomats also admitted that leaders hadn't even decided who would be on the contact group, though its first meeting is expected in Qatar in two weeks.

In Washington, Adm. James Stavridis, the NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, told Congress that officials have seen "flickers" of possible al-Qaida and Hezbollah among the rebel forces.

British officials acknowledged they had little knowledge of some of the key opposition figures, including some on the 33-member interim council.

"We must never be complacent about the way events like this could turn out," Hague said. "If things go wrong in the region on a sustained basis, there could be new opportunities for terrorism or extremism."

Despite those worries, Clinton and Juppe both hinted that the international community may need to consider offering weapons to the rebels.

"It is our interpretation that (UN Security Council resolution) 1973 amended or overrode the absolute prohibition on arms to anyone in Libya, so that there could be a legitimate transfer of arms if a country should choose to do that," Clinton said.

Mahmoud Shammam, spokesman for the Interim National Council, told reporters in London that, properly equipped, rebels "would finish Gadhafi in a few days."

"We do not have arms, we ask for the political support more than we are asking for the arms, but if we get both that would be great," Shammam said.

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jabr al-Thani said the issue could be addressed later if the aerial campaign falls short of its goal of protecting Libyan civilians.

"We have to evaluate the airstrike after a while to see if it's effective," he said. "We are not inviting any military ground (troops) ... but we have to evaluate the situation because we cannot let the people suffer for so long, you know, we have to find a way to stop this bloodshed."

Opening the talks, Cameron told diplomats that Gadhafi was pounding Misrata, the main rebel holdout in the west, with attacks from land and sea. He said Gadhafi was using snipers to shoot people in the streets and "has cut off food, water and electricity to starve them into submission."

"The reason for being here is because the Libyan people cannot reach that future on their own," Cameron said. "We are all here in one united purpose, that is to help the Libyan people in their hour of need."

In Washington, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said Tuesday that the Obama administration had not ruled out arming the rebels.

"We have not made that decision, but we've not certainly ruled that out," she said in an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America" program.

Rice also told ABC there was no indication that Gadhafi was prepared to leave power without continued pressure from the international community.

Referring to reports that members of Gadhafi's inner circle were reaching out to the West, she said: "We will be more persuaded by actions rather than prospects or feelers."

In a speech Monday night at the National Defense University at Fort McNair, Obama said the London talks would help increase pressure on Gadhafi.

Libya's deputy foreign minister Khaled Kaim told a news conference in Tripoli that foreign leaders had no right to attempt to impose a new political system on the country.