MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - Italy wants a political solution to the war in Libya that would see Muammar Gaddafi “leaving the stage,” its foreign minister told an Algerian newspaper on Tuesday after a rebel campaign ran into resistance.
With rifts apparent within NATO, the United States said some allies in the campaign against Gaddafi could see their forces “exhausted” within three months.
Rebel fighters are seemingly unable to make much progress in their fight to end Gaddafi’s 41-year rule and calls for a diplomatic resolution have mounted.
Rebels stalled in their advance toward Tripoli on Monday. Shelling by forces loyal to Gaddafi killed eight rebel fighters and wounded 25, according to hospital sources in the rebel stronghold of Misrata.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini’s call for a political way out came after his Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi exposed rifts within NATO by saying he had not supported the war on Libya, and France bridled at the slow pace of efforts to end the crisis.
“We are convinced that the Libyan crisis requires a political solution characterized by an end to fighting, Gaddafi, who lacks all legitimacy, leaving the stage, and the launching of an inclusive democratic process involving all parts of Libyan society,” Frattini told Algeria’s El Khabar newspaper in an interview to be published on Tuesday.
NATO-member Italy has provided air bases from which alliance planes bomb Libya.
In New York, the U.N. peace envoy for Libya urged the government and rebels to turn indirect talks on a settlement into direct ones, but acknowledged they were still far apart.
“I am urging the parties to increase their focus on working toward a political solution,” Abdul Elah al-Khatib told reporters on Monday.
France expressed impatience over the weekend at the inability to reach a political solution after months of static fighting, and stepped up pressure on rebels to negotiate an end to the conflict.
But French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Monday the NATO-led alliance still needed to keep up its military pressure on Gaddafi’s army and reiterated that he must step down as a condition for an end to the war.
France also denied comments by one of Gaddafi’s sons that it was in direct talks with the Libyan leader’s government.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said some NATO allies operating in Libya could soon see their forces beyond the limit of their capabilities.
“The problem right now, frankly, in Libya is that ... within the next 90 days a lot of these other countries could be exhausted in terms of their capabilities, and so the United States, you know, is going to be looked at to help fill the gap,” Panetta said, speaking to troops in Baghdad on Monday.
He did not specify which countries.
At one of Libya’s two major front lines, Misrata, rebels were dug into defensive positions, getting ready to push against pro-Gaddafi forces in the neighboring town of Zlitan.
Zlitan is the first in a chain of coastal towns blocking the rebels on a westward march to the capital, Tripoli.
“Right now we are just waiting for ammunition and getting ready to go, but in my opinion if we had more ammunition we could already be in Zlitan,” said rebel fighter Ali Bashir Swayeba, a 29-year-old dentist.
A son of the Libyan leader, Saif al-Islam, told El Khabar newspaper in an interview on Monday that Gaddafi’s government was in talks with the French government.
Speaking from Tripoli, he said, “The truth is that we are negotiating with France and not with the rebels.”
France denied it was in talks with Gaddafi’s government.
The rebels have refused to hold talks as long as Gaddafi remains in power, a stance that before now none of NATO’s major powers had publicly challenged.
With the conflict stalemated, cracks are emerging within the NATO alliance. Some member states are balking at the burden on their recession-hit finances, and many are frustrated there has been no breakthrough.
But even countries that support a political solution have not explained how a deal can be reached when the rebels and their Western backers say Gaddafi must go, while the Libyan leader says that is not up for negotiation.
Strains over Libya are expected on Friday when the contact group, which brings together the countries allied against Gaddafi, meets in Istanbul.
Rebel forces trying to march on Tripoli have made modest gains in the past week, but in the Western Mountains region southwest of Tripoli, rebels again came under fire from Gaddafi’s forces. A rebel spokesman in Nalut, Mohammed, said rebels were able to destroy two houses used as ammunition warehouses near Libya’s border with Tunisia.
Gaddafi’s forces launched a heavy artillery bombardment to try to push back rebel fighters who last week seized the village of Al-Qawalish, 100 km (60 miles) south of Tripoli.
Al-Qawalish is a strategic battleground because if the rebels manage to advance beyond it, they will reach the main highway leading north into Tripoli.
Gaddafi says the rebels are armed criminals and al Qaeda militants. He has called the NATO operation an act of colonial aggression aimed at stealing Libyan oil.
Additional reporting by Lamine Chikhi in Tripoli, Peter Graffin Al-Qawalish, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers; Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by Elizabeth Piper