- Associated Press - Friday, May 27, 2011

DEAUVILLE, France (AP) — Russia offered Friday to mediate the exit of Libya’s longtime leader, cranking up pressure on Moammar Gadhafi as France and Britain seek to intensify their bombing campaign.

“He should leave,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said of Gadhafi.

Frustration is mounting in Moscow and Western capitals that the NATO campaign has dragged into its third month with no obvious end in sight. Analysts are skeptical as to whether Russia would have any leverage over Gadhafi, and the leaders of France, Britain and Germany said there’s no point in negotiating directly with Gadhafi himself.

Medvedev, speaking at a news conference at the Group of Eight summit in Deauville, France, said he is sending envoy Mikhail Margelov to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, Libya, immediately to start negotiating. Medvedev said talks with the Libyan government could take place later.

Medvedev said Russia will use its contacts with both Gadhafi’s government and the rebels to try to negotiate a peaceful end to the conflict.

Russian officials have been critical of Gadhafi but also complain about what they called an excessive use of force by NATO and have urged a quick end to hostilities. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently held talks in Moscow with representatives of both Gadhafi’s government and the rebels.

Asked whether Russia could offer Gadhafi asylum, Medvedev gave a firm negative answer. He added that a place for Gadhafi to stay and other details could be discussed after he steps down.

Margelov told reporters earlier Friday that it’s necessary to negotiate with all “reasonable” representatives of the Libyan government, including Gadhafi’s sons.

A Libyan rebel spokesman, Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga, said Friday that Russia’s moves to persuade Gadhafi to leave power were too little, too late.

“It’s too late, and it’s not a big deal,” Ghoga, the vice-chairman of the opposition National Transitional Council, told a rally in the eastern city of Benghazi.

A Moscow-based Middle East expert expressed doubt that Gadhafi will agree to step down after Benghazi-based opposition leaders rejected a cease-fire agreement proposed by the leaders of the African Union in late March.

Gadhafi “will fight to the end with unpredictable consequences for everyone involved,” Yevgeny Satanovsky, head of the Moscow-based Middle East Institute, told The Associated Press. “He already agreed to leave, but Benghazi needs his scalp.” Satanovsky said that Gadhafi’s unpredictability leaves little room for a tangible prediction of what will happen if Russia steps in as a mediator.

Rebel fighters clashed with government forces to the south and west of the rebel-held city of Misrata on Friday. Dr. Mustafa Omar of Hikma hospital said five rebels were killed and 26 wounded. It was unclear if any government soldiers were killed.

While rebel fighters have pushed Gadhafi’s troops to the city’s outskirts, the city, Libya’s third largest, has been under siege for months, receiving food and medical supplies only by sea.

U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said Russia’s suggestion that it could help mediate Gadhafi’s exit is “a positive development and further proof that the international community is becoming more united in its belief that Gadhafi must go.”

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