Africa

Libya unrest: How to monitor Gaddafi's ceasefire

Protesters in Tobruk, 18 March

Yet again Libya has proved to be the most intractable of countries to understand, and Col Muammar Gaddafi the most unfathomable of leaders to predict.

In recent days the man who has ruled this country with an iron grip for the past 42 years has revelled in the knowledge that his better organised and better equipped troops were beating a steady march eastwards, towards the rebel strongholds of Benghazi and Tobruk.

In Zawiya, Bin Jawad and Ras Lanuf, the destructive power of government troops was all too obvious as they literally blasted opposition forces backwards.

But now the colonel has been caught unawares by the swift and collective response of the international community.

Threatening language

A move led by European and Arab governments - not the US - has culminated in a resolution authorising all measures short of occupation to protect civilians.

The Libyan government's initial and, frankly surprising, response was to declare a ceasefire on all fronts.

Surprising because Col Gaddafi's own rhetoric when he knew the UN vote was imminent was to talk of taking Benghazi "house by house".

His troops were "on their way" and would win back the east at all costs. "No mercy would be shown to anyone" who continued to resist the regime, he said.

Little surprise, perhaps, that in foreign capitals there is much scepticism about the regime's commitment to any ceasefire. Indeed, reports from the western town of Misrata say that shelling and attacks on rebel-held positions were still going on away from the prying eyes of the foreign press.

That, though, would be impossible on the eastern front.

The BBC and other international news organisations have reporters on the ground, near Ajdabiya and, of course, in Benghazi.

If Col Gaddafi's troops continue their offensive in these areas, and especially if he tries to use his jets, we will soon know about it.

How to oust Gaddafi?

If "ceasefire" is not a term that comes easily to Col Gaddafi's lips, then "compromise" and "negotiate" will be even harder for him to contemplate.

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Media captionIan Pannell met rebels in Benghazi celebrating the UN resolution

But if this conflict is to end peacefully with regime change, as the international community hopes, then Col Gaddafi has to be offered a way out.

He has few international friends and even fewer places he can realistically flee to, even if he agrees to relinquish power.

In neighbouring Tunisia, the much-hated former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, fled to exile in Saudi Arabia; President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt did manage to stay in his own country, albeit in the far-off resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

There may well be opponents of the government in areas like Tripoli, perhaps emboldened by international declarations, who will renew calls for Col Gaddafi to resign.

They know more than anyone else that this is a regime prepared to use violence, repression and torture against its own people at any whiff of dissent or opposition.

It may take reformist figures within or close to the regime to persuade the Libyan leader that it is time for him to go, for opposition leaders in the East to be engaged in negotiations, and for Libya to move on to a new era.