Gaddafi aides in face-to-face talks with US officials

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Representatives of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's embattled government held face-to-face talks with US officials in neighbouring Tunisia over the weekend, a Libyan government official said today.

The meeting was described as a first step in opening dialogue.

A US State Department official confirmed the meeting had taken place but said it was only to deliver a clear and firm message that Colonel Gaddafi must step down. The US official said it was not a negotiating session and no future meetings were planned.

The talks came after Friday's decision by the United States and more than 30 other nations meeting in Istanbul to recognise the eastern-based rebels fighting Gaddafi's government as the country's legitimate representatives, added the official.

Libyan spokesman Moussa Ibrahim told reporters in Tripoli that the talks were held in Tunisia on Saturday but he refused to say who took part.

"This is a first step and we want to take further steps," he said. "We don't want to be stuck in the past; we want to move forward all the time."

He described it as a "a first-step dialogue" to see about repairing relations between the two countries, which he said had been damaged by misinformation.

The US was an active participant in Nato air strikes against Libyan forces which began on March 19 and were authorised under a UN mandate to protect Libyan civilians from Gaddafi's advancing forces.

The US later turned over command of the air campaign to Nato and now plays a largely logistical role in the continuing air strikes.

Fighting continued yesterday around the eastern oil port of Brega. An Associated Press reporter on the scene witnessed rocket duels between the opposing sides and the thick black smoke of burning oil terminals blanketing the sky.

In Tripoli, Mr Ibrahim claimed that more than 500 rebels had been killed in five days of failed assaults against the strategic town. Rebels, however, have only reported a handful of casualties and maintain that fighting continues in their attempt to take the oil terminal on the front lines of the civil war.

The government spokesman said the rebels attacked by sea using boats and along a desert highway and the main coastal road, but were bloodily repelled in every case.

"In these waves of attacks, unfortunately, 520 of the rebel forces have been killed in these five days," he said. "This huge number came because of the lack of experience on the rebels' part."

Rebels have reported no more than two dozen dead in the last several days and scores wounded, but nowhere near the amount claimed by Mr Ibrahim. They also maintain they have partial control of the city.

"Do not believe the rumours, lies and misinformation spread widely by the rebels; we have complete control," said Mr Ibrahim, adding that they would defend the city and its oil to the death.

"We will turn Brega into hell. We will not give Brega up even if it causes the death of thousands of rebels and the destruction of the city."

Rebels also accuse government forces of littering the desert around Brega with tens of thousands of land mines as part of its defences.

"We are still suffering from the land mines left behind after World War II, and now Gaddafi's brigades are planting more mines," said Colonel Ahmed Bosibable, a land mines expert working for the rebels.

"This is internationally prohibited as these land mines are distributed randomly and unsystematically, which makes them more difficult to find."

Nato forces destroyed a radar tower at the Tripoli International Airport in the early hours yesterday because it was being used to target its planes, the alliance said.

Libyan officials countered that the radar system was not used for military purposes.