US urges Gaddafi to go as rebels claim oil town

US official says meeting with Libyan leader's envoy was held to deliver message: "The only way to move forward is for Gaddafi to step down."

Libyan rebel on the front lines 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori)
Libyan rebel on the front lines 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori)
TRIPOLI - Libyan and US officials met face-to-face, but while Tripoli said it was seeking talks with no preconditions, Washington said it delivered a clear message: Muammar Gaddafi must go.
The secret meeting occurred at the weekend as Libyan government forces fought rebels for control of the oil port of Brega, which the insurgents said on Monday they now had surrounded in what would be a major boost to their campaign. Tripoli denied this.
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The meeting was held "to deliver a clear and firm message that the only way to move forward is for Gaddafi to step down," a US State Department official said.
"This was not a negotiation. It was the delivery of a message." He said no more meetings were planned.
Libya said it welcomed discussions but only without preconditions.
"Any dialogue with the French, Americans, British is welcome," government spokesman Ibrahim Moussa told journalists in Tripoli. "We will discuss everything, but do not condition your peace talks. Let Libyans decide their future."
He said the meeting was in Tunisia on Saturday. The US official said it followed repeated contacts from the Libyan leader's emissaries.
The rebels said they had routed most of Gaddafi's troops in Brega, which has an oil refinery and terminal, and encircled it in a boost to their campaign after weeks of stalemate.
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More than 40 people on both sides were reported killed in the fighting since late last week for a city which for months marked the eastern limit of Gaddafi's control.
Rebel spokesman Shamsiddin Abdulmolah said its streets were strewn with landmines, making it hard to secure full control.
"The main body (of Gaddafi's forces) retreated to Ras Lanuf," which lies to the west, he said by telephone from the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi.
The government denied the claim.
"Our brave soldiers are in Brega in their thousands and control it completely," spokesman Ibrahim said.
He said the government had lost 30 soldiers over five days of fighting, but rebels had lost many times more.
Abdulmolah said 12 rebels were killed and some 300 wounded on Saturday and Sunday. Most rebel forces were now past Brega and heading west.
Russia criticized the United States and others for recognizing the rebel leadership as the legitimate government of Libya, saying they were taking sides.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced US recognition of the rebels on Friday, a major diplomatic step that could unblock billions of dollars in frozen Libyan funds.
Gaddafi is refusing to step down despite the rebellion, NATO air strikes and defections of members of his inner circle.
On Saturday -- as his envoys met US officials -- he called rebels traitors and said he had no plans to leave the country.