Leading article: Ceasefire and negotiate

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Colonel Gaddafi cannot be bombed into exile. Four months after the launch of a British and French-led military mission to remove him, that is the reality that the Government is being forced to accept. According to the new thinking in Paris and London, as long as the Libyan leader is prepared to give up power, he can stay in the country. The shift represents a welcome, if belated, outbreak of realism.

First framed as a humanitarian act to stop the massacre of civilians, but later amended to support a full-blown policy of regime change, the intervention in Libya has been ill-thought through from the start. It was premised on the naive assumption that Colonel Gaddafi would crumple as soon as Nato launched a few airstrikes and flee abroad.

In fact, by giving the Libyan dictator no alternative but to flee the country, or face prosecution before the International Criminal Court, the Western powers ensured that he would fight to the finish. What quickly became evident was that Britain and France had also, in effect, entered on one side of a civil war, while the strength of the rebels, who it was assumed would sooner or later seize power in Tripoli, was vastly and unhelpfully exaggerated.

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, is right to now state that Britain will support whatever agreement is reached between the two sides of the conflict. The ultimate aim of any settlement should remain Gaddafi's exit from power. But first, there will have to be a ceasefire, and the launch of credible negotiations. Gaddafi has demonstrated his ability to cling on to power even in the face of up to 40 air strikes a day. A reckless and hastily launched act of foreign policy has brought us to this.

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