Former US rep in Libya to seek Gadhafi’s exit

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — A former U.S. congressman invited by Moammar Gadhafi arrived in Tripoli on Wednesday on a self-described private mission to urge the Libyan leader to step down as rebels and pro-government forces waged near stalemate battles.

Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican who has visited Libya twice before, said he leading a private delegation and had informed the White House and some members of Congress about his trip. He was in Libya’s capital as a White House envoy, Chris Stevens, was meeting rebels in their de facto capital, Benghazi, to gauge their intentions and capabilities.

Gadhafi has been widely excluded from international efforts to broker a peace plan, with rebels insisting that his four-decade rule must end. Weldon would be one of the few high-profile Westerners to meet with Gadhafi since the rebellion began in February.

Weldon, who served two decades in Congress before losing his seat in 2006, was part of a bipartisan delegation that visited Libya in 2004 after Gadhafi agreed to abandon his nuclear program. The seven-member U.S. team included then-Sen. Joe Biden and included an address by Weldon to the Libyan Peoples’ General Conference — a pro-Gadhafi forum — to urge greater understanding between Libya and the United States.

Weldon also visited Libya last year to study U.S. business opportunities.

“There is no question that America should play a critical role in helping the Libyans build a new government,” Weldon wrote in an editorial published Tuesday in The New York Times. “Sadly, in the years since my first trip, Washington has squandered many opportunities to achieve that goal without bloodshed. And unless we begin to engage with the country’s leaders — even those close to Col. Gadhafi — we may again lose our chance to help build a new Libya.”

The rebels, aided by U.N.-authorized airstrikes intended to protect civilians from Gadhafi’s forces, have maintained control of much of the eastern half of Libya since early in the uprising, while Gadhafi has clung to much of the west. Gadhafi has been putting out feelers for a cease-fire, but he refuses to step down.

Neither government forces nor the rebels have made any serious gains in recent days, and the conflict has shifted to smaller objectives on both sides, such as control of the key oil port of Brega.

Rebels have complained that NATO airstrikes come too slowly to seriously disrupt the pro-Gadhafi troops. But the French foreign minister, Alain Juppe, defended the air campaign, saying the missions are becoming more complicated as Gadhafi’s forces position themselves in heavily populated civilian areas to make targeting difficult.

Juppe said airstrikes have destroyed most of Gadhafi’s aircraft and armored vehicles, but that his troops are increasingly blending in with the rebels by using pickups and less sophisticated weapons similar to those the opposition uses.

“The military situation in the field is confused and uncertain and the risk of engulfing exists,” he said in a radio interview.

In Misrata, the only major western Libyan city held by the rebels, Juppe said it has become more difficult for NATO to attack Gadhafi forces besieging the city because government troops have gotten closer to civilian populations.

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