Pressure on Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to quit is again mounting sharply, with American officials demanding his departure in direct talks with Libyan government representatives amid claims yesterday that rebels had taken the oil port of Brega in the east of the country.
At the face-to-face meeting between officials from the United States and Libya, which were reportedly held in Tunisia at the weekend but revealed only yesterday, neither side appears to have given ground.
According to Tripoli, the session was proof of the regime's readiness to talk – but without preconditions. The State Department insists the US side had only one thing to say: Colonel Gaddafi must give up power. "This was not a negotiation," US officials said. "It was the delivery of a message." No further meetings are scheduled.
But the search for a diplomatic solution is not ending there. French and Libyan officials have held similar discussions, while Libya's Foreign Minister will meet his Russian counterpart in Moscow today in talks that had been requested by Tripoli.
Russia has urged Colonel Gaddafi to step down, but as a part of a negotiated solution, and has strongly criticised the West for unilaterally recognising the main opposition group, the Transitional National Council (TNC). Supporting one side in the conflict was "exceptionally bad" for Libya, the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said yesterday. Russia is in touch with both rebels and government and "a compromise is possible" between the two sides, Mr Medvedev said.
Privately, some Nato countries also favour a negotiated settlement as the quickest way of ending a war that has dragged on far longer than expected.
Now, developments on the ground could precipitate events. More than 80 people have been reported killed in the latest fighting around Brega, which had for months been the easternmost Libyan city in government hands.
In Tripoli, a regime spokesman denied that Brega had fallen. But a French foreign ministry spokesman said the rebels were taking control of "the totality of the city" in a victory that confirmed "the retreat and isolation" of Colonel Gaddafi's forces.
If true, the capture of Brega would represent a major ground success for the opposition in a conflict mired in stalemate despite four months of Nato air operations in support of the rebels.