BENGHAZI, Libya, (Reuters) – Rebels fighting to topple Muammar Gaddafi scorned reports of secret talks with the Libyan leader on Monday as their forces fought to secure gains and the United States said Gaddafi’s days were numbered.
After 41 years of supreme power in his oil-rich desert state 69-year-old Gaddafi was isolated in the capital Tripoli, with reinvigorated rebel forces closing in from the West and South.
Libya’s rebel National Transitional Council (NTC), recognised by many of the NATO nations whose air power is supporting their assault, denied any kind of negotiation with Gaddafi to resolve the six-month-old conflict.
“The NTC would like to affirm that there are no negotiations either direct or indirect with the Gaddafi regime or with the special envoy of the United Nations,” said NTC leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil.
Gaddafi must step down and leave Libya, he said. “It is unthinkable to hold any negotiations or talks that disregard this basic principle.”
In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Gaddafi’s forces had been thrown back onto the defensive, and reports that a senior figure in the Libyan security apparatus had defected indicated the regime was cracking.
“Gaddafi’s forces are weakened and this latest defection is another example of how weak they’ve gotten,” Panetta said.
“I think the sense is that Gaddafi’s days are numbered,” Panetta said at event with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.