PARIS (Reuters) - France appeared on Sunday to shift its position on the Libyan uprising, suggesting that there could be no military solution and that Muammar Gaddafi loyalists and Libyan rebels should begin direct negotiations.
However, Paris also said its objective was still that Libyan leader Gaddafi must eventually leave power — a condition virtually certain to be rejected by a hitherto defiant Gaddafi. The rebel leadership, for its part, has insisted that Gaddafi must leave power before talks can even begin.
French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet told local television on Sunday that it was time for both sides to sit round a table to reach a political compromise.
France has spearheaded the NATO-led air campaign in Libya with Britain under a United Nations mandate to protect civilians, and was the first to launch air strikes against troops loyal to Gaddafi in March.
But after more than three months of bombing, international leaders are puzzling over how to end the war, where rebels hold large parts of eastern Libya and have loosened a siege of the city of Misrata, but are unable to make decisive inroads toward the caoital Tripoli despite NATO strikes on Gaddafi’s forces.
Gaddafi has resisted calls to give up power in the face of a rebel offensive aimed at ending his 41-year rule.
“We have stopped the hand that struck out and have asked them to speak to each other,” Longuet said on BFM TV.
“The position of the TNC (rebel Transitional National Council) is very far from other positions. Now, there will be a need to sit around a table,” he said.
The rebels have repeatedly demanded that the Libyan leader step down before any negotiations can begin for a political transition, something his entourage has repeatedly dismissed.
Frustration is growing in Paris at the duration of the mission and the government will face detailed questioning on Tuesday ahead of a parliament vote on whether to extend operations.
“We (NATO) will stop the bombardment as soon as Libyans speak to each other and the military from both sides go back to their barracks,” Longuet said.
“They can now speak to each other because we are showing them that there is no solution with force.”
Discussions between both sides have been going on behind the scenes for weeks, but Gaddafi’s future has been a major stumbling block. A diplomatic source said there was no indication Gaddafi was willing to stand aside.
The issue was complicated on June 28 when the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Gaddafi as well as one of his sons and the head of the intelligence services.
The TNC in Benghazi said this month it could not continue with talks now that Gaddafi was wanted internationally, but Longuet appeared to leave the door open for Gaddafi to remain in Libya.
When asked whether it was possible to hold talks if Gaddafi had not stepped down he said: “He will be in another room in his palace, with another title.”
A source at the Defense Ministry told Reuters the ultimate objective was not necessarily for Gaddafi to leave Libya, but for him to let go of his powers.
Speaking on France Info radio, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said no talks could really begin until there was a credible ceasefire under U.N. control.
“Then we need a negotiation process with the TNC, other Libyan players and those that have understood in Tripoli that Gaddafi has no future, and then the road map for a democratic peace,” he said.
“The difficulty today is knowing how to get Gaddafi to relinquish all his political and military responsibilities.”
Although at an African Union meeting last week leaders did not openly call for Gaddafi’s departure, Juppe said they had now moved in that direction, which made an AU peace proposal more realistic.
He said the focus of a Libya Contact Group meeting of interested powers in Istanbul on Friday would be in part to discuss this initiative, and that he had also suggested the group meet in Addis Ababa.
“We have every interest in working with the African Union, which can play a very positive role,” he said.
Additional reporting by Elisabeth Pineau; Editing by Kevin Liffey