Libya rebels set conditions for any ceasefire

BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – Libyan rebels said on Friday that Muammar Gaddafi must withdraw troops from western cities and grant citizens freedoms in any ceasefire deal, and their demand that the Libyan leader quit was unchanged.

Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the national council in the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi, also said rebels would need more weapons if Gaddafi’s forces did not halt military action.

He was speaking at joint news conference with U.N. special envoy to Libya Abdelilah al-Khatib, who met rebel officials in Benghazi. Khatib called for a ceasefire, the protection of civilians and lifting the “siege” on Libyan cities.

“We have no objection to a ceasefire but on condition that Libyans in western cities have full freedom in expressing their views,” Abdel Jalil said, adding that the goal of rebels was a united Libya with Tripoli as its capital.

“The condition for a ceasefire is the removal of Gaddafi’s forces from in and around western cities,” he said. “Our main demand is the departure of Muammar Gaddafi and his sons from Libya. This is a demand we will not go back on,” he added.

Gaddafi has described rebels as “armed gangs” backed by al Qaeda and says they are bent on terrorizing ordinary Libyans, who he says support him and his rule.

Western cities, particularly Misrata, have been subject to heavy bombardment by Gaddafi’s forces, residents and rebels say.

Rebels have refused any negotiations with Gaddafi except to discuss the manner of his departure from power after more than four decades of ruling the North African state.

Abdel Jalil called for the removal of “mercenary” troops from the streets under any ceasefire. Rebels say Gaddafi has used mainly African mercenaries to fight his battles for him.

Khatib told the news conference: “Each side is saying they will agree to a ceasefire if the other party agrees first. The real challenge is how to achieve a ceasefire that is effective, real and lasting.”

“We don’t just want an announcement of a ceasefire, we want a real ceasefire that can be monitored,” the U.N. envoy added.

After several weeks of fighting and about two weeks of Western-led air strikes, the broad political landscape in Libya remains largely unchanged, with rebel forces controlling the east and Gaddafi in the west facing pockets of opposition.

Fighting has shifted to-and-fro along a coastal strip of about 200 km (125 miles) or more that divides east and west.

Gaddafi’s better armed forces charged toward Benghazi before Western air strikes were launched but fighting has now returned to the coastal strip around a series of oil towns.

The rebels, with much lighter arms than Gaddafi’s troops, have been unable to hold gains that took them close to Gaddafi’s stronghold of Sirte at the entrance to the west.

(Writing by Ibon Villelabeita and Edmund Blair in Cairo; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Libya rebels set conditions for any ceasefire