The British newspaper The Independent on Thursday revealed details of secret talks brokered by Norway that almost culminated in a peaceful end to the war in Libya in 2011 before failing in the last moments. Former Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Store, who took part in the 2011 negotiations, accused France and Britain of opposing a negotiated solution in Libya.
"I felt the prevailing mentality in London and Paris was that they didn't really have opportunities to think about the diplomatic option," Store, who first revealed the deal, told the British newspaper. "If there was a desire in the international community to follow this path with some dedication, I think there could have been an opportunity to achieve a less dramatic outcome and avoid the collapse of the Libyan state," the Norwegian diplomat added.
The accusations continue to haunt Britain's then Prime Minister David Cameron and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy for seeking to change the Libyan regime at all costs, allegations they deny. On March 17, 2011, the United Nations voted to intervene with NATO aircraft flying and conducting hundreds of airstrikes on Libya over the next seven months.
But Gaddafi's allies were quietly seeking a negotiated outcome and while he publicly promised to crush the rebellion, his son Saif Al-Islam invited senior Norwegian officials to Tripoli to negotiate, the British newspaper adds. Store revealed that "two senior Norwegian officials were at the presidential palace in Tripoli with Saif Al-Islam when the UN resolution was passed in New York. They had to be hastily driven across the border into Tunisia in order to ensure their safety as the first NATO air strikes approached."
Despite negotiations, Norway became an active member of the NATO bombing campaign and eventually dropped nearly 600 bombs. At the same time, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who is now NATO secretary-general, asked his foreign minister Store to continue the secret negotiations by hosting them in Norway. The country has a long history of quiet diplomacy in the Middle East, including brokering the Oslo Accords of 1993, which saw a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
They were not the only ones trying to negotiate, the African Union also tried to broker a peace agreement of its own, but Norway made progress according to Store.
After weeks of back-and-forth talks, Store organized the first face-to-face meeting between senior regime officials and the Libyan opposition in an Oslo hotel room on April 27, representing Gaddafi loyalists was Mohammed Ismail, Saif al-Islam's right-hand man. On the part of the opposition rebels was Ali Zeidan, a prominent figure in the opposition National Transitional Council. According to independent, several attempts to contact Zeidan in order to obtain his testimony failed. Ismail initially told the newspaper that he was willing to discuss the talks but did not respond to multiple messages.
Store pointed to the development of a "comprehensive plan" to end the crisis, and said in the first line "Colonel Gaddafi decided to leave power, step down and end the first phase of the revolution." But Muammar Gaddafi's fate remained a key sticking point, over whether he could stay in the country while leaving politics. The last mile was for Gaddafi to say that he agreed to move into exile but Store stressed that he did not know if Gaddafi was ready to eventually resign or if the most extreme rebel groups on the ground would have accepted the deal. Adding, major Western countries were not interested in a negotiated settlement.
"If there was a will to do that, one could have imagined some kind of ceasefire in the military campaign to allow diplomats to move." But he said: "the military operation had already lasted eight weeks, the dynamics on the ground were changing and frankly the desire to rally behind such an operation did not exist." William Hague, the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom at the time, declined to comment. David Cameron's office did not respond but in his memoirs denied seeking to change the Libyan regime, saying he had "pushed and pressed" for a negotiated settlement but Gaddafi was unwilling to do so.
After Libya plunged into a decade-long war, former US President Barack Obama later described the lack of post-conflict planning as the "worst mistake" of his presidency, as the country became a battleground for rival regional powers.
Store, who now leads Norway's opposition Labour Party, concluded that the failure to take the 2011 negotiations seriously was made all the more tragic by the lost decade that followed, as Libya became a "battleground for other countries."