Gaddafi's days 'numbered' as UN begins talks

The firing of a Scud missile shows the Libyan regime's desperation, and the rebels fear it will use chemicals

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The Independent Online

The UN's special envoy to Libya yesterday arrived in Tunis to step up pressure for what Tunisian officials called a "peaceful transition" from Muammar Gaddafi's 41-year rule as the US Defence Secretary suggested the dictator's days were "numbered".

The moves came in the aftermath of the defection of Libya's interior minister, reports from rebel forces that they had overrun two strategic towns each within 40 miles of Tripoli, and the first, though ineffective, firing of a Scud missile by pro-Gaddafi forces.

As the UN envoy Abdel-Elah al-Khatib, Jordan's former foreign minister, began talks in Tunis, Leon Panetta, the US Defence Secretary, declared in Washington: "Gaddafi's forces are weakened and this latest defection is another example of how weak they've gotten. I think the sense is that Gaddafi's days are numbered."

There was some confusion over the nature of the talks held by Mr al-Khatib in Tunis, with both the UN and rebel leaders in Benghazi denying reports that he was conducting negotiations with each side. The envoy himself declined to discuss who else he was meeting after talks with the Tunisian foreign minister Mouldi Kefi al-Khatib.

But an unnamed Tunisian security official told the Associated Press that discussions were on a "peaceful transition" in Libya and that rebel representatives reacted angrily to a diplomatic proposal with one of them throwing a shoe during the meeting to show his deep disapproval.

US Defence officials confirmed that the Scud was fired on Sunday from near Sirte, Gaddafi's home town 310 miles east of Tripoli, and landed in the desert further east between the rebel-held towns of Brega and Ajdabiya.

In Benghazi rebel officials said the Scud was probably intended to hit rebel forces near Ajdabiya. "Gaddafi troops are using his last gun. He's crazy," said Mohammad Zawawi, media director for rebel forces. "We're scared he'll use chemicals. That's why we're trying to end this war, and with the least number of casualties. We can't prevent the Scuds but we hope Nato can."

Shashank Joshi, from the Royal United Services Institute, said firing the missile, which poses little military threat because it is so inaccurate, is evidence of the Gaddafi administration's desperation. "It's an obvious sign the regime's back is to the wall," he told Reuters.

The reported seizure by rebel forces of Zawiyah, the city 30 miles east of Tripoli and scene of an anti-Gaddafi insurrection earlier in the year, and of Gharyan, 40 miles south of the Libyan capital, posed a significant threat to the regime's supply lines.

But while most pro-Gaddafi forces were said by rebel leaders to have withdrawn from Zawiyah, they left behind snipers, concealed in high buildings. Salvos of Russian-made Grad rockets have landed in the town in the past 48 hours, with local medics putting the death toll of civilians and rebel fighters at 20 on Monday alone.