Jacques Brinon, Associated Press
DEAUVILLE, France — Russia offered Friday to mediate Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's exit from power, and France said allied forces want to step up the NATO-led military operation in Libya.
Both gestures reflect mounting pressure on Gadhafi and frustration that the NATO campaign has dragged into its third month with no obvious exit in sight.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit in Deauville, France, that Gadhafi has exhausted his legitimacy as the Libyan leader.
"We believe that Gadhafi has deprived himself of legitimacy as the Libyan leader, and it's necessary to help him leave," Ryabkov said, adding that Russia is ready to convey such signals to the Libyan side.
"It's necessary to find a formula for Gadhafi to leave the post, and such a step would help settle other issues," Ryabkov added.
Russian officials have been critical of Gadhafi but also complained about what they called an excessive use of force by NATO and urged a quick end to hostilities. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has recently held talks in Moscow with representatives of both Gadhafi's government and the rebels.
Mikhail Margelov, the Kremlin-connected head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of Russia's parliament, said in Deauville that Russia will step up contacts with both the Libyan government and the rebels. Russian news agencies quoted Margelov as saying that it's necessary to conduct talks on Gadhafi's departure with the Libyan political elite, maybe Gadhafi's sons.
Margelov said that President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel all had a high assessment of Russia's mediation efforts.
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."
"Russia has relations, not just in Libya but across most of North Africa. ... We can benefit from those types of consultations and contacts with them," Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, told reporters in Deauville.
Sarkozy, hosting the G-8 summit, said Friday there is "great unanimity" about an "intensification of the military intervention" to protect civilians from Gadhafi's forces.
He did not say how, but France and Britain said this week they are ready to deploy attack helicopters in the campaign.
He said Gadhafi will "pay the consequences" if he doesn't leave power.
On Thursday, Libya's government for the first time said it is prepared to speak with its rebel adversaries, signaling that months of fighting and NATO bombardment may be closer to forcing some concessions. At the same time, it insisted that Gadhafi would not relinquish power.
In response, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said "words are not enough."
The commander of NATO's operations in Libya said Friday that French and British attack helicopters will operate in Libya under NATO's command, rather than under separate national command.
Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, speaking by video link from Naples, would not say how or where the helicopters would be used, saying only that he wanted to develop "an effective, aggressive but safe" operation. He said they could help target military vehicles that are difficult to identify from higher altitudes.
So far, the NATO campaign has relied largely on strike jets dropping munitions from an altitude of about 15,000 feet (4,600 meters). The helicopters, flying much lower and slower, could more accurately identify targets in densely populated areas while risking fewer civilian lives. But such flights would also expose the helicopter crews to greater risks.
Since March 31, NATO has commanded an international operation to protect civilians and enforce a no-fly zone, as Gadhafi has sought to put down a rebellion against his rule.
Bouchard said Friday that forces loyal to Gadhafi have laid land mines near the rebel-held city of Misrata. Previously, NATO had accused the Gadhafi regime of mining the waters off the Libyan coast.
"Anti-personnel land mines, in contravention to international law, had been laid in the Misrata area to prevent the population from moving," Bouchard said.
He defended the efficacy of the NATO operation against critics who believe the conflict has become a stalemate, saying that humanitarian aid is moving more freely and many civilian lives have been saved.
"I believe today that Libya is a much safer place than it was on" March 31, Bouchard said.
Julie Pace in Deauville, Don Melvin in Brussels and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.
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