By Lin Noueihed
TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi said on Saturday he was ready for a ceasefire and negotiations provided NATO "stop its planes," but he refused to give up power as rebels and Western powers demand.
The rebels and NATO rejected Gaddafi's offer, saying it lacked credibility. A spokesman for the insurgents said the time for compromise had passed and NATO said air strikes would go on as long as Libyan civilians were being threatened.
Weeks of Western air strikes have failed to dislodge the Libyan leader, instead imposing a stalemate on a war Gaddafi looked to have been winning, with government forces held at bay in the east and around the besieged city of Misrata while fighting for control of the western mountains.
With neither side apparently able to gain the upper hand, Gaddafi struck a more conciliatory tone in an 80-minute televised address to the nation in the early hours of Saturday.
"(Libya) is ready until now to enter a ceasefire," said Gaddafi, speaking from behind a desk and aided by reams of paper covered in what appeared to be hand-written notes.
"We were the first to welcome a ceasefire and we were the first to accept a ceasefire ... but the Crusader NATO attack has not stopped," he said. "The gate to peace is open."
Gaddafi denied mass attacks on civilians and challenged NATO to find him 1,000 people who had been killed in the conflict, kindled by pro-democracy uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world.
"We did not attack them or cross the sea ... why are they attacking us?" asked Gaddafi, referring to European countries involved in the air strikes. "Let us negotiate with you, the countries that attack us. Let us negotiate."
But as he spoke, NATO warplanes hit three targets close to the television building in Tripoli in what state media said was an attempt to kill Gaddafi who has ruled since a 1969 coup.
The air strikes left a large crater outside the attorney general's office but did not damage the building, and hit two other government offices housed in colonial-era buildings. It was not immediately clear if there were any casualties.
The rebels' transitional national council dismissed Gaddafi's gesture, saying the Libyan leader had repeatedly offered ceasefires only to continue violating human rights.
"Gaddafi's regime has lost all credibility," council spokesman Abdel Hafiz Ghoga said in a statement. "The time for compromise has passed. The people of Libya cannot possibly envisage or accept a future Libya in which cannot Gaddafi's regime plays any role."
The rebel military spokesman, Colonel Ahmed Bani, said Gaddafi was "playing dirty games" ... He doesn't speak honestly. We don't believe him and we don't trust him."
In Brussels, a NATO official told Reuters that Libyan authorities had announced ceasefires several times before only to continue attacks on cities and civilians.
"We need to see actions, not words ... Any ceasefire must be credible and verifiable," the official said.
"NATO will continue operations until all attacks and threats against civilians have ceased, until all of Gaddafi's forces have returned to base and until there is a full, safe and unhindered humanitarian access to all people in need of assistance," he said.
The NATO official declined to comment whether NATO would be open to meeting Gaddafi's representatives for talks, if contacts for such talks were made.
Gaddafi refused to leave his North African homeland or quit, the central demand of the rebels, the United States, and also of France and Britain which are leading the NATO air campaign.
"I'm not leaving my country," Gaddafi said. "No one can force me to leave my country and no one can tell me not to fight for my country."
Gaddafi's forces showed no sign of giving up the fight either, claiming to have captured the port of the city of Misrata on Friday, the last major rebel outpost in western Libya, but NATO said it saw no evidence of that.
Libya's government has threatened to attack any ships approaching Misrata, potentially depriving insurgents of a lifeline to their heartland in the east of the country.
NATO said Gaddafi forces had laid mines on the approach to the harbor, which has been under siege for weeks, and forced a temporary halt in humanitarian shipments.
"NATO forces are now actively engaged in countering the mine threat to ensure the flow of aid continues," the alliance said.
Further west, the war spilled into Tunisia when Gaddafi's forces overran a rebel enclave at the frontier. The Libyan army shelled the Tunisian border town of Dehiba, damaging buildings and wounding at least one person, witnesses said.
They said Libyan soldiers drove into the town in a truck chasing rebels.
Tunisian Deputy Foreign Minister Radhouane Nouicer, speaking on Al Jazeera television, said casualties, including a young girl, were inflicted when the conflict spilled over on Friday.
"We summoned the Libyan envoy and gave him a strong protest because we won't tolerate any repetition of such violations.
The Libyan government said rebels had briefly pushed its forces into Tunisia and that it was coordinating with Tunis to avoid a disaster in the border area.
"We are respecting the sovereignty of the Tunisian country and state," spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said.
A Reuters cameraman who crossed into Libya from Dehiba saw the bodies of three Gaddafi soldiers on the ground. It was not clear if they had been shot by rebels or by Tunisian forces.
Tunisian border guards had shut down the border, he said. They were laying barbed wire and fortifying their positions.
Libyan refugees fleeing the fighting in the Western Mountains were reaching the crossing but unable to get through.
Rebels seized the Dehiba post a week ago. It controls the only road link which their comrades in the Western Mountains have with the outside world, making them rely otherwise on rough tracks for supplies of food, fuel and medicine.
(Additional reporting by Tarek Amara and Abdelaziz Boumzar in Dehiba, Deepa Babington and Michael Georgy in Benghazi, Matthew Tostevin in Tunis; writing by Jon Hemming; editing by Mark Heinrich)
Copyright 2011 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more