By Andrew Quinn
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - U.S. officials met with representatives of Muammar Gaddafi to deliver a message that the embattled Libyan leader must go, a State Department spokesperson said on Tuesday.
The rare meeting between U.S. diplomats and Gaddafi envoys on Saturday was held "to deliver a clear and firm message that the only way to move forward is for Gaddafi to step down," the official said.
"This was not a negotiation. It was the delivery of a message," the official said in a statement issued in New Delhi, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on an official visit.
The meeting involved Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman and two other American officials, said a senior U.S. official, who declined to say who represented the Gaddafi government or where the meeting occurred, although he said it was not in Libya.
The meeting followed Washington's decision on Friday to formally recognize the Benghazi-based rebel National Transitional Council as the legitimate interim government of Libya.
That step, taken in concert with other members of the international contact group on Libya after a meeting in Istanbul, may help unlock billions of dollars in frozen funds that the rebel forces have been desperately seeking.
U.S. and European officials have reported increasing signs that members of Gaddafi's inner circle are sending out feelers about trying to reach a negotiated settlement after months of NATO-led air strikes.
Participants in the Istanbul meeting agreed that any political negotiations would be organized by the United Nations, and that Gaddafi's departure from power was an essential result.
The U.S. official said that the Saturday meeting with Gaddafi representatives was initiated after repeated contacts from the Libyan leader's emissaries indicated Tripoli had questions about Washington's position.
"Senior officials in the Gaddafi regime had over a period of weeks made repeated calls to senior officials in the U.S. and in those conversations they evinced an incorrect sense that somehow the United States was in a different place from other members of the international community and that the U.S. could see a future for Gaddafi in Libya," the official said.
Washington decided to hold the face-to-face meeting after consulting with the rebels and other countries in the international alliance against Gaddafi, the official said.
"We decided ... to deliver a message to them privately that was identical to what we'd been saying publicly, which was that Gaddafi must go for there to be a political process that leads to a democratic Libya," the U.S. official said.
"We have a sense from others that they have spoken with that they (the Libyans) understood the message. They got it ... we have no plans for further meetings," the official said.
The United States and other members of the coalition have vowed to keep up pressure to force Gaddafi to step down while helping to build the rebel force into a viable successor for the oil-producing north African country.
But there are signs of strains in the alliance carrying out the NATO-led military campaign, while U.N. Security Council heavyweights China and Russia have also voiced doubts about the campaign.
The NATO airstrikes and imposition of a "no-fly zone" over Libya began in March after forces loyal to Gaddafi appeared to be on the verge of laying siege to the rebel capital of Benghazi, after weeks of nationwide anti-government protests.
President Barack Obama, who ordered U.S. forces to help initiate the airstrikes, has sought to justify the operation as a humanitarian intervention, but it appears to have the unstated goal of driving Gaddafi from power.
The air war has sparked sharp criticism in Congress, where lawmakers have questioned the wisdom of U.S. participation in another military conflict in the Muslim world in addition to Afghanistan and Iraq.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Christopher Wilson)