Tripoli - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Thursday he was against Nato intervention in Libya but had to go along with it, an admission that exposed the fragility of the alliance trying to unseat Muammar Gaddafi.
Nato warplanes have been bombing Libya under a UN mandate, but the alliance is under mounting strain because of the cost of the operation and the failure, after more than three months, to produce a decisive outcome.
“I was against this measure,” Berlusconi said. “I had my hands tied by the vote of the parliament of my country. But I was against and I am against this intervention which will end in a way that no-one knows.”
Some of the alliance bombing missions over Libya take off from military airbases in Italy.
There was no suggestion following Berlusconi's comments that Rome would withdraw the use of the bases. But Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa said that the cost to Italy of the Libya operation would fall from 142 million euros in the first half of the year to less than 60 million euros in the second half as part of general defence spending cuts.
He said after a cabinet meeting on Thursday the aircraft carrier Garibaldi with three aircraft on board had been withdrawn, and their tasks would be taken on by land-based aircraft.
Speaking at a book presentation in Rome, Berlusconi said: “I went to Paris and I said - I can repeat this - I would have stood with Mrs Merkel as far as this decision to intervene in the no fly zone is concerned.”
He appeared to be referring to a March 19 meeting at which several Western powers decided to launch the military intervention. German Chancellor Angela Merkel chose not to involve her country in the operation.
“We posed very precise questions to the protagonists of this initiative - that's to say President Sarkozy and Prime Minister David Cameron - in the most recent meeting of the heads of government in Brussels,” he said.
“The answer was that the war will end when there is, as we expect, a revolt by the population of Tripoli against the current regime.” Gaddafi has rejected any suggestion that he will give up power and he has described the Nato campaign as an act of colonial aggression aimed at stealing Libya's oil.
Potentially adding to the pressure on Italy to review its stance on Libya, a senior Libyan government spokesman said negotiations had begun with Russian and Chinese firms to take over the role of Italian energy firm ENI in oil and gas projects.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged Gaddafi - who has dismissed rebels trying to end his four-decade rule as criminals and vermin - to listen to the will of the people.
“We are far from reaching an agreement to reach an end to the conflict but the negotiating process is ongoing,” Ban told reporters in Geneva. “He (Gaddafi) has to listen much more attentively and seriously what would be the best for the future of the Libyan people.”
Rebel fighters trying to advance towards the capital, Tripoli, launched offensives on two fronts on Wednesday and made significant gains. But analysts said the advances were not yet enough to shift the military balance against Gaddafi.
In the Western Mountains southwest of Tripoli, fighters pushed pro-Gaddafi forces out of the village of Al-Qawalish, clearing the way for them to try to seize control of the main highway heading north to the capital.
Colonel Juma Ibrahim, a rebel commander in the nearby town of Zintan, said seven rebel fighters were killed in the operation and 30 wounded.
He said the capture of al-Qawalish meant other villages and towns in the region were no longer in the range of government rockets and artillery. “It will let the people return to their houses,” he said.
Further north, on Libya's Mediterranean coast, rebel fighters on Wednesday pushed west from Misrata to within about 13 km of Zlitan - one of a chain of government-controlled towns blocking their advance to Tripoli.
A Reuters reporter near the front line on Thursday said there was now a lull in the fighting, though he could hear a few explosions.
Anti-Gaddafi rebels received a fresh diplomatic boost when China sent a senior diplomat to meet the rebel leadership in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
The visit by Chen Xiaodong, China's foreign ministry chief for North African affairs, was the second official meeting between China and Libyan opposition leaders in less than a month.
“China believes that the present situation cannot go on and a political resolution to find a way out of the Libyan crisis must be found as soon as possible,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regular news briefing in Beijing.
There were reports this week that Gaddafi - under pressure from the five-month-old uprising against his rule, sanctions and the Nato bombing campaign - was seeking a deal under which he would step down.
His government has denied any such negotiations are underway, and Nato's chief said he had no confirmation that Gaddafi was looking for a deal to relinquish power.
A Libyan official told Reuters on Wednesday there were signs a solution to the conflict could be found by early August, when the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins. However, he did not say what that solution might involve.
In Benghazi and Misrata on Wednesday night, thousands of people demonstrated against Gaddafi, waving European and rebel flags and calling for the end to his 41-year rule. - Reuters