Africa

Libya: Nato has no easy or fast way out

Libyans buy fish at a market in Tripoli on 19 April as Nato air strikes hit the Libyan capital
Image caption There is a semblance of life getting back to "normal" in the Libyan capital Tripoli

Back at the end of February the Libyans took the BBC team to a meeting with the foreign minister.

Our car raced there through streets that were dark and chilly and almost empty. It was about 8pm and Tripoli looked shuttered and scared.

The other night, at about the same time in the evening, the Libyans took us on the same journey to the same place.

Every shop was open. In one well-off area, parents were walking around with their children.

If they had the money and inclination, they could buy some furniture, new bikes for the kids, or an espresso from one of the cafes that are about the only part of Italy's colonial legacy that Libyans like.

Air raids happen, but only spasmodically and are, as far as I can tell, highly accurate. Libyan civilians in Tripoli are evidently feeling safe enough to go for a stroll at night.

In February, road blocks controlled by aggressive militiamen and regime loyalists, all heavily armed, slowed down the journey.

Very close to the place where we were due to meet the foreign minister, a woman wearing a green headband ordered her men to get us out of the vehicle, until the official driver persuaded her that we weren't suspicious.

Now the only delay is caused by the traffic.

This time round, the Foreign Minister, Abdul Ati al-Obedi, was waiting and ready to speak.

Last time, the foreign minister was Musa Kusa. We set up the camera and the lights, but he didn't turn up. At the time, he must already have been contemplating defecting to London, and presumably did not feel like discussing his view of the regime with the BBC.

Scuppered

Mr al-Obedi is friendly, quietly spoken and slightly rumpled. He picked up a theme that is often heard from Libyan officials.

Constitutional change had been coming, he said, and it had been scuppered by the insurrection.

The foreign minister said the regime was serious about a ceasefire. It could be followed by elections which would be supervised by the UN.

He implied that the future of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi as leader could even be decided by an election.

"I think everything, especially the political reform, election, constitution, will be on the table. And it will cover whatever issue is raised by all Libyans."

Mr al-Obeidi may well be sincere. But the big power in the land is Col Gaddafi himself.

The minister has been one of the main intermediaries sent out frequently by the Libyan government since the crisis started.

His remarks echo the African Union peace plan, which was accepted by Col Gaddafi and rejected by the rebels.

But the rebels say they do not believe anything that comes from the regime.

And Libya's diplomatic overtures have come up against one serious obstacle - they all envisage Col Gaddafi staying on. For the rebels and their Western backers, that is not acceptable.

Military advisers

Col Gaddafi faces powerful enemies. France and Britain are leading a coalition that wants him out. The Americans are part of it, but have taken a step back from the war.

Image caption The casualties among civilians in Misrata are a symbol of the problems the Nato mission is having

All three have made public commitments about regime change (though they don't use the phrase, with its echoes of the invasion of Iraq in 2003).

But Nato and the rebels have their problems too.

The Libyan army, even with its heavy weapons facing a strong chance of destruction if they appear in the open, is still functioning. If it was not for Nato air cover, the army would look stronger than the rebels.

More evacuees from the besieged rebel enclave in Misrata have been arriving in Benghazi. Events there are embarrassing Nato and driving the Western response.

Nato is supposed to be protecting Libyan civilians. Every boat that arrives in Benghazi from Misrata carries, along with wounded fighters, children who have suffered appalling privations.

The casualties among civilians in Misrata are a symbol of the problems the Nato mission is having in its second month.

It is coming up against the limits of bombing. The easy targets have been destroyed. But the Libyan army down on the ground continues to function.

That's why, even though air strikes continue, Britain and France are looking at other ways of helping the rebels. Their latest idea is to send in military advisers, to show the rebels how to be better soldiers. Britain says they will do that without training or arming them.

Qatar says it will provide weapons, conveniently for Britain and France, who feel they have no choice but to respect the UN arms embargo.

At the moment, political and diplomatic contacts are not bringing an end to the war any closer. Britain and France are Nato's hawks on Libya, and aren't prepared to negotiate with the government here until Col Gaddafi goes.

That means they do not have an easy or fast exit from the war. Deploying military advisers means they are deepening their involvement.

And despite what the Libyan foreign minister has said about what could happen after an election, Col Gaddafi shows no signs at all of stepping aside, let alone leaving the scene.

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