Britain and other coalition countries would be prepared to allow Muammar Gaddafi to escape prosecution and be granted safe haven as part of a deal to end the conflict in Libya.
Publicly David Cameron has called for Colonel Gaddafi to face an investigation by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. But privately Government officials suggest there is growing support for a deal which would allow him immunity from prosecution and the chance to live out his life in a another country if he were to leave Libya and call an end to the fighting.
“Our starting position is that Gaddafi should face investigation,” said one source. “However this is clearly something other countries are thinking about and we are listening to them.”
Meanwhile a team of British officials is in face-to-face contact with rebel forces in Libya for the first time, while foreign ministers from more than 40 countries gather in London for a conference on the country's future.
Mr Cameron yesterday held a video conference about developments in the Middle East with US president Barack Obama, Mr Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel. A Downing Street spokesman said: “The Prime Minister set out his priorities for the London Conference on Libya: he hoped it would strengthen and broaden the coalition of countries committed to implementing the UN resolutions and protecting the people of Libya; it would discuss plans for the provision of urgent humanitarian assistance; and it would call for a political process which would allow the people of Libya to shape their own future.”
Earlier, despite skirmishes on the way and a few panicked retreats, the rebel forces slowly advanced towards their goal — Sirte. It is Gaddafi's birthplace, a fiercely loyal stronghold and a key strategic point in moving on the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
The scale and nature of resistance from the regime's soldiers indicated how much their firepower had been devastated by Western air strikes. There was little of the heavy shelling that had made the revolutionary forces flee in the past. This was replaced instead by sporadic rockets and small-arms clashes on the ground.
The rebel commanders, nonetheless, remain worried after reports that the male population of Sirte had been armed and what remains of the regime's armour and artillery on the eastern front has been deployed to protect the city.
Renewed bombing of the military positions in the city by international coalition warplanes are said to have caused some damage, but the city remains well guarded.
The rebel government is hoping that the defences at Sirte may be undermined from within.
Negotiations are going on, officials claim, with two clans, the Farjan and the Hamanlah, in attempts to persuade them to stay out of the fray.
A dozen members of the Farjan were executed by a militia supporting Gaddafi, after a summary trial, turning the dispute into a blood feud, say rebel officials — a claim which cannot be independently verified.
By yesterday evening the Shabaab (rebels) had reached the village of Om al-Gandel around 80km from Sirte.
They had taken Nawfilya, the last large urban centre, by the afternoon.
A claim made by a provisional government spokesman in Benghazi, early in the morning, that Sirte had already fallen, repeated by the Al-Jazeera television channel, was untrue.