With the battle-lines hardening around the eastern oil town of Brega occupied by forces loyal to Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi, the stage seems set for extensive back-channel contacts to find a diplomatic solution to the Libyan crisis.
On Sunday, there was no significant change in the military situation in Brega. Opposition forces, which had retreated in the face of the regime's artillery barrage earlier in the day, later regrouped. They fired their rockets from the town's outskirts, causing some damage. But despite the rearguard action, strengthened by western airstrikes, the opposition militia remained on the western edge of the oil town.
In the embattled western city of Misurata, the military stalemate has seemingly prolonged, with an escalation in casualties. At least one person was killed in an attack on Sunday morning. Ambulances swiftly shifted the injured to an overcrowded makeshift hospital. Medical staff said the fighting over the last one month had killed more than 240 people. Over 1,000 had been wounded in the counter-offensive by regime forces to re-take the city, which had earlier fallen to the opposition.
With the battle-lines once again static, there were signs that the search for a political solution might intensify soon.
Libya's former Prime Minister, Abdul Ati al-Obeidi, said on Friday that there had been attempts to establish contacts with Western powers to end the conflict through negotiations. “We are trying to talk to the British, the French and the Americans to stop the killing of people. We are trying to find a mutual solution,” he said. His comments came after it was disclosed that a close aide to Mr. Qadhafi's son Saif al-Islam met British officials last week. The opposition had on Friday offered a conditional ceasefire, which was rejected by the regime.
From Sunday, the intensity of fighting in Libya is likely to change as the United States has declared it is pulling out of active air combat to enforce the United Nations mandated no-fly zone over Libya, which is being steered by NATO. U.S. officials have said that from Sunday, their forces would not launch attacks unless requested by NATO and approved by Washington. The U.S is also withdrawing some of the warships it had earlier used to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles at regime targets.
However, a smaller number of vessels would be left behind as standby to assist NATO, if required.
The enthusiasm for western air strikes within the opposition rank-and-file might also have been dented by Friday's “friendly fire” incident outside Brega, when a western aircraft killed 13 opposition combatants, confusing them with pro-Qadhafi troops. “The aircraft thought they were coming under attack and fired on the convoy,” Issa Khamis, a liaison officer for the opposition's transitional council in the town of Ajdabiyah, told Al Jazeera.
Favouring diplomacy instead of military force, some European officials are now calling for accelerated efforts to engineer the collapse of the regime from within. Italy's foreign minister, Franco Frattini has said: “It is not through actions of war that we can make (Mr.) Qadhafi leave, but rather through strong international pressure to encourage defections by people close to him.”
Keywords: Libya crisis