SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi ruled out on Thursday talks with the rebels seeking to end his 41-year-rule, casting doubt on a flurry of Western efforts to negotiate an end to a deepening civil conflict.
“There will be no talks between me and them until Judgment Day,” Gaddafi told a crowd of thousands of his supporters in his home city of Sirte in a remotely delivered audio message. “They need to talk with the Libyan people ... and they will respond to them.”
The rally in the quiet seaside city drew men wearing green hats, women waving flags and children whose faces were painted with pro-Gaddafi slogans.
Their vociferous support for Gaddafi — and rebel declarations earlier that the war could not be ended through talks — showed how far Libya may be from a negotiated end to its five-month-old conflict.
Rebels who have struggled to arm and organize themselves have suffered losses in the past week near the insurgent stronghold of Misrata and the eastern oil hub Brega, but are pushing ahead with their campaign to unseat the longtime leader.
On Thursday the rebels said their advance toward the capital had been slowed by the laying of hundreds of thousands of mines at Brega, but the frontline at Zlitan advanced to the closest it has ever been to the western city’s outskirts.
Foreign diplomatic efforts to find a solution have intensified as the fighting drags on. China said it would work with the African Union, which has proposed a plan seen as less hostile to the Libyan leader than a Western plan that insists on his stepping down.
Chinese President Hu Jintao told his visiting South African counterpart Jacob Zuma that the Africans had played an important role in pushing a political solution.
“China greatly appreciates this and is willing to continue remaining in close touch and to coordinate closely with South Africa and the African Union on the Libya issue,” Hu said.
France said on Wednesday Gaddafi could stay in Libya if he gave up power, an apparent softening of the West’s stance in a new effort to find a diplomatic end to the war.
The United States said Gaddafi must quit, but whether he remained in Libya after that would be up to the Libyan people.
But Libyan officials have said before now that Gaddafi’s departure was not up for negotiation and the rebels said on Thursday that no one seriously expected talks to end the crisis.
“No one talks about a political solution. Impossible. He closed all the doors,” said Colonel Ahmed Bani, a rebel military spokesman. “What do we tell the widower? What do we tell the mother who lost her children ... We can’t negotiate, people will devour us.”
Bani said he expected a breakthrough in Brega in a few days, and in the western town of Zlitan within two days.
“We are advancing slowly and clearing the mines ... but we know that at the end, we will enter it (Brega),” he told Reuters in an interview in the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
“The fall of Brega is the end of the regime.”
Libya’s front line near the oil town of Brega, one of the last strongholds of Gaddafi’s forces, has been deadlocked for weeks.
Bani estimated that 400,000 mines had been planted around Brega and said the rebels, mostly volunteers with no military experience, were working to clear them with almost no help from experts. Gaddafi’s forces have pushed back the rebels by filling trenches with petrol and setting them ablaze.
The rebel forces are now about 20 kms from the edge of Brega, but Gaddafi’s forces still control the city and its oil installations, he said. The rebel forces are dug in east and south of Brega.
In Zlitan, on the coast road 160 km (100 miles) east of the capital, the rebel front line has advanced 4 kms in the past 24 hours, a major gain that leaves the rebels around 5 kms from the city’s outskirts.
This is the nearest the rebels have ever come to Zlitan, a source familiar with the battles said. Three rebel fighters were killed and 25 wounded on Thursday in fighting outside Zlitan, according to hospital figures. Five rebels were killed on Wednesday by mines, the rebels said.
State TV showed what it said were fresh pictures from Zlitan and Brega in an apparent bid to show the towns were still firmly in Tripoli’s hands. In Zlitan, dozens of Gaddafi supporters were shown chanting slogans of support.
Some analysts have said Gaddafi is running short of fuel and food, which could stoke popular unrest ahead of the Muslim month of Ramadan which begins next week. During Ramadan, people prepare nightly feasts after fasting by day.
The state news agency JANA said officials met on Thursday to ensure food supplies “reach consumers as soon as possible before the start of Ramadan.”
Gerald Howarth, British Minister for International Security Strategy, said there would be no pause in the war for Ramadan.
“There will be no let-up in the coalition activities to protect the people of Libya,” he said. “It would be highly irresponsible to give Gaddafi any excuse to inflict the kind of brutality that he has displayed in the past.”
Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal in Benghazi, Souhail Karam in Rabat, Lutfi Abu Aun in Tripoli, Sui-Lee Wee and Ben Blanchard in Beijing, Brian Love and Emmanuel Jarry in Paris, Patrick Worsnip in New York; writing by Richard Meares and Lin Noueihed, editing by Tim Pearce