PARIS (AP) — France's foreign minister suggested Wednesday that a possible way out of Libya's civil war would be to allow Muammar Gaddafi to stay in the country if he relinquishes power.
Gaddafi insists he will neither step down nor flee the country he has led for four decades. With the NATO-led air campaign against Gaddafi's forces entering its fifth month and the fighting in a stalemate, the international community is seeking exit strategies.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy met in Paris on Wednesday with three rebel leaders from the western port city of Misrata who are seeking aid and arms to move toward Tripoli. Sarkozy announced no specific measures in response.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France wants to keep "a very close link" with the rebels "to see how we can help."
Asked whether Gaddafi could stay in Libya under house arrest, for example, Juppe said on LCI television Wednesday: "One of the hypotheses that is envisaged is that he stays in Libya, on one condition ... that he clearly steps aside from Libya's political life. This is what we are waiting for before launching a political process."
The rebels initially insisted that Gaddafi leave the country, but some are not ruling out the possibility that he could stay in Libya if he gives up power. The two sides have been locked in a stalemate with the rebels unable to advance beyond pockets in the west despite a NATO air campaign against Gaddafi's forces.
Rebel military leaders Ramadan Zarmouh and Ahmed Hachem and the Misrata representative of the opposition government, Souleiman Fortia, met with Sarkozy on Wednesday.
"Their message was the following: what we did to liberate our city, we can do it to move forward towards Tripoli," said French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, who helped organize the meeting and has championed the Libyan rebel cause.
"If they (the rebels) have the means, they just need a few days to reach the doors of Tripoli. They are expected in the three cities before Tripoli by experienced fighters who are just waiting for them. So a few days will be enough," he said.
He said Sarkozy listened to them but did not say whether any aid or arms were pledged.
France has played a driving role in the NATO-led campaign of airstrikes, mandated by the U.N. to protect civilians from a crackdown by Gaddafi's forces on an uprising against his rule, amid revolts this year around the Arab world.
Last week, more than 30 nations including the United States gave the Libyan rebels a boost by recognizing their National Transitional Council as the country's legitimate government, potentially freeing up billions of dollars in urgently needed cash.
Associated Press writer Angela Charlton contributed to this report.