LONDON (Reuters) – Britain and the United States stepped up pressure on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to quit on Tuesday, and rebels fighting him promised to build a free, democratic state if they won power in Tripoli.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, opening a conference of 40 governments and international bodies on Libya, accused Gaddafi’s supporters of “murderous attacks” on people in Misrata, Libya’s third largest city.
“As this broad range of countries gathers here today in London, there are people suffering terribly under Gaddafi’s rule. Our message to them is this: there are better days ahead for Libya,” Cameron said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that coalition military strikes on Libya would continue until Gaddafi fully complied with U.N. demands to cease violence against civilians and pull forces out of occupied cities.
“All of us must continue to increase the pressure on and deepen the isolation of the Gaddafi regime through other means as well,” Clinton said.
“This includes a unified front of political and diplomatic pressure that makes clear to Gaddafi that he must go.”
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said on ABC television that Washington had not ruled out arming the rebels, although no such decision had been made yet.
U.S. officials say a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted this month would allow arming the rebels, but an Italian diplomatic source said any such move would require a new resolution backed by a broader international consensus.
On Libya’s coastal strip, focus of fighting, Gaddafi’s better armed troops appeared to be reversing a recent westward charge by rebels who had taken advantage of coalition air strikes to seize a string of towns over the last week.
Gaddafi accused Western powers of massacres of Libyan civilians in alliance with rebels he said were al Qaeda members.
Before the London conference, called to discuss current action against the Tripoli government and a post-Gaddafi era, the interim rebel National Council held out the prospect of a “modern, free and united state” if Gaddafi could be ousted.
Mahmoud Jebril, a leader of the Benghazi-based National Council, was in London for meetings with Cameron and Clinton, although the opposition did not attend the conference.
An eight-point Council statement said the oil-producing north African nation’s economy would be used for the benefit of all Libyans. It also said it would draft a national constitution allowing the formation of political parties and trades unions.
Its commitments included guaranteeing “every Libyan citizen, of statutory age, the right to vote in free and fair parliamentary elections and presidential elections, as well as the right to run for office.”
The United States said it had appointed veteran diplomat Chris Stevens as envoy to the interim administration in Benghazi and he would go there soon. France already has a special envoy on the ground liaising with the rebel leadership.
With Gaddafi loyalists pushing back against the rebels, Italy, the former colonial power in Libya, has put forward a proposal for a political deal to end the crisis. It features a quick ceasefire, exile for Gaddafi and dialogue between rebels and tribal leaders.
“There is a tacit agreement among everybody that the best thing would be for Gaddafi to go into exile, because the reason for continuing the war is the presence of Gaddafi,” the Italian source said.
He added that the African Union, which stayed away from Tuesday’s meeting to underline its neutrality, was the only body that could persuade Gaddafi to go into exile.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague also implied exile might be a way to take Gaddafi out of the picture and settle the six-week-old uprising against his four-decade rule.
“We want him to leave power and that’s what we’ve consistently said to the Libyan regime. We are not in control, of course, of where he might go,” Hague told the BBC, but he said Gaddafi should face the International Criminal Court.
Muslim NATO member Turkey, which initially opposed military action, wants a rapid ceasefire and a negotiated solution. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu attended the London conference after Turkey was not invited to the first meeting of the international coalition in Paris 10 days ago.
Some diplomats and analysts have suggested offering Gaddafi immunity from ICC prosecution and safe passage to a host country could be an incentive for him to go quickly.
Britain and France led the push for a muscular intervention in the Libyan conflict and coalition air strikes have helped rebels in the east of the country to advance; but questions remain about the end game in Libya.
The United States has borne the brunt of military strikes so far but President Barack Obama announced on Monday that it would scale down involvement within days as the NATO defense alliance takes over full command of the operation.
Tuesday’s meeting, due to end with a news conference at 1630 GMT, is expected to set up a high-level steering group, including Arab states, to provide political guidance for the international response to Libya.