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Tony Blair urged Muammar Gaddafi to stand aside, phone transcripts show

Published 07/01/2016

Tony Blair and Muammar Gaddafi shake hands ahead of talks in Tripoli in 2004
Tony Blair and Muammar Gaddafi shake hands ahead of talks in Tripoli in 2004

Tony Blair tried to persuade Muammar Gaddafi to stand aside and accept a change of government to stop protests against his rule descending into violence, newly-released transcripts of telephone calls show.

In the two calls, made on February 25 2011 - a week after the Libyan regime responded with violence to demonstrations in Benghazi and other cities - the former prime minister offered to help Col Gaddafi in working with the US and EU to find a peaceful solution to the crisis.

But he made clear that if Gaddafi did not signal his willingness to stand aside, it could result in "bloodshed for a lot of Libyan people".

The transcripts, released by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, were provided by Mr Blair's office after he gave evidence to the committee last month as part of its inquiry into UK foreign policy towards Libya.

As prime minister, Mr Blair played a key role in bringing Libya back in from the cold after years of international sanctions, famously meeting Gaddafi in his desert tent in 2004.

In the second call, a clearly suspicious Gaddafi told Mr Blair his plan sounded like "colonisation" and said he was ready to arm his people to fight any outside intervention.

He insisted that any violence was the fault of al Qaida sleeper cells within Libya and warned that the uprising was part of a plot by armed Islamists to "control the Mediterranean... and then attack Europe".

Mr Blair assured the Libyan leader that he was "absolutely not" suggesting military intervention to restore peace, but warned that the situation within the north African country could quickly become "very destructive" if Gaddafi did not call for an end to the violence and signal his readiness to engage in a process of change.

"The position of the leader is crucial," said Mr Blair. "If he indicates that he wants this to occur now and that he will stand aside and go somewhere safe, I think this will resolve this peacefully. If he wishes this to happen, I can take this message back to the people I have been talking to.

"There is a process of change that is going to take place - that has been made clear by the leader himself. He needs to signal acceptance of that change and he needs to stand aside to let that happen peacefully."

But Gaddafi responded: "There is no bloodshed here. It is very quiet. But if you want to reap Libya, we are ready to fight. It will be like Iraq."

The conversation ended with Gaddafi telling Blair to "just leave us alone", as the former prime minister urged him to "keep the lines open".

The demonstrations later descended into civil war and Britain joined an international campaign of airstrikes to protect Libyan rebels against regime forces.

In October - eight months after Mr Blair's effort to find a solution - Gaddafi's power finally evaporated and the leader was lynched by a mob as he attempted to flee.

Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Crispin Blunt suggested that, while Gaddafi's view of international affairs was "delusional", he may have been more far-sighted than Western policy-makers on the threat from Islamist militancy in Libya if his regime was allowed to fall.

The aftermath of Gaddafi's overthrow has seen Libya struggle to form a new government capable of controlling the country, and the establishment of outposts of the Islamic State terror group in cities including Sirte. The release of the transcripts came as news emerged of a truck bomb killing at least 60 police officers in town of Zliten.

Mr Blunt said: "The transcripts supplied by Mr Blair provide a new insight into the private views of Colonel Gaddafi as his dictatorship began to crumble around him. The failure to follow Mr Blair's calls to 'keep the lines open' and for these early conversations to initiate any peaceful compromise continue to reverberate.

"The Committee will want to consider whether Gaddafi's prophetic warning of the rise of extremist militant groups following the collapse of the regime was wrongly ignored because of Gaddafi's otherwise delusional take on international affairs.

"The evidence that the Committee has taken so far in this inquiry suggests that Western policy-makers were rather less perceptive than Gaddafi about the risks of intervention for both the Libyan people and the Western interests."

During the calls, Mr Blair - who stressed he was acting "in a personal capacity" - told Gaddafi: "I can help with the international community, but can only do that if there is peaceful dialogue. No violence. The process for change has to happen in a peaceful way."

He said: "I appreciate the difficulty when you are under attack. But the use of airplanes to attack cities and the use of force against civilians - this has to stop, otherwise it is impossible for the international community to act."

And he warned: "If you have a safe place to go, you should go there, because this will not end peacefully and there has to be a process of change. That process of change can be managed, and we have to find a way of managing it."

Mr Blair added: "The US and the EU are in a tough position right now and I need to take something back to them which ensures this ends peacefully."

But Gaddafi - who Mr Blair referred to throughout the calls as "the leader" - insisted that his forces were not fighting the people, but were coming under attack from al Qaida.

He repeatedly called for international journalists and politicians to be sent to observe the situation, and at one point held the telephone receiver up to a TV screen to demonstrate to Mr Blair that there was no unrest.

As the ex-PM spelt out his proposal for Gaddafi to leave, the Libyan leader responded: "It seems that this is colonisation. I will have to arm the people and get ready for a fight.

"Libyan people will die, damage will be on the Med, Europe and the whole world. These armed groups are using the situation as a justification, and we shall fight them."

Mr Blair assured him: "No-one wants to recolonise Libya. Libya is for its people."

But he added: "My anxiety is this is happening very, very fast and if we don't find a way out in the next few hours, I don't know what will happen.

"The leader can facilitate and if he doesn't we end up with bloodshed for a lot of Libyan people, and I don't want that to happen."

Warning that the situation could pass "the point of no return" within days, Mr Blair told Gaddafi that "this is the last chance to resolve this peacefully".

"The violence needs to stop and a new constitution needs to take shape", he told the Libyan leader, adding that people would be "content" if they saw he was standing down.

But Gaddafi compared the situation to campaigns of extremist violence in Afghanistan, Algeria, Nigeria and Pakistan and challenged Mr Blair: "Do you support al Qaida? ... Are you supporting terrorism?"

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