TRIPOLI, Libya — Libya's government pushed a cease-fire proposal Thursday and said for the first time it was prepared to speak with its rebel adversaries, signaling that months of fighting and NATO bombardment may be closer to forcing some concessions.
Even so, the government insisted Moammar Gadhafi would not relinquish power, which he has held for more than 40 years. His departure is a key demand of the United States, European leaders and the rebels, who say they will not consider halting more than three months of fighting until Gadhafi goes.
"The leader, Moammar Gadhafi, is in the heart of every Libyan. If he leaves, the entire Libyan people leave," said Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi al-Mahmoudi.
He told reporters in the Libyan capital Thursday that he was willing to hold talks with "all Libyans," including members of the rebel administration based in the eastern city of Benghazi.
Officials from Gadhafi's regime said before they would not speak to the rebel government, arguing that it did not represent Libyans.
Also Thursday, three rebel fighters were killed and 20 others wounded in clashes with government forces near the western city of Misrata, said Dr. Mustafa Taha from the city's central Hikma Hospital. It was unclear if any government soldiers died in the clash, about 14 miles (22 kilometers) west of the city, the only one under rebel control near Tripoli.
Late Thursday, at least five explosions were heard in Tripoli from NATO airstrikes. The targets were not immediately identified. Libyan gunners aimed anti-aircraft fire at the planes. Smoke was seen rising from the area of Gadhafi's compound, a frequent target of NATO airstrikes.Comment on this story
In London, a person with knowledge of the situation said Britain has agreed in principle to supply Apache attack helicopters to the NATO effort. The person insisted on anonymity because no announcement was made. France has agreed to supply attack helicopters, which could hit pinpoint targets more easily than planes but would also be vulnerable to ground fire.
Al-Mahmoudi did not outline the government's latest cease-fire proposal in detail, but emphasized that NATO must be a party to it, not just the rebels. He would not say whether the government would meet NATO's demands to return its military forces to their barracks.
"Libya is serious about a cease-fire. But that means a halt for all parties, in particular NATO," al-Mahmoudi said. "Any cease-fire needs its own special arrangements between technical and military people. Everything will be discussed once we have a cease-fire," al-Mahmoudi said.
The White House dismissed the proposal as not credible.