PARIS — France's foreign minister suggested Wednesday that a possible way out of Libya's civil war would be to allow Moammar Gadhafi to stay in the country if he relinquishes power.
Gadhafi insists he will neither step down nor flee the country he has led for four decades. With the NATO-led air campaign against Gadhafi's forces entering its fifth month and the fighting in a stalemate, the international community is seeking exit strategies.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy met in Paris on Wednesday with three rebel leaders from the western port city of Misrata who are seeking aid and arms to move toward Tripoli. Sarkozy announced no specific measures in response.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France wants to keep "a very close link" with the rebels "to see how we can help."
Asked whether Gadhafi could stay in Libya under house arrest, for example, Juppe said on LCI television Wednesday: "One of the hypotheses that is envisaged is that he stays in Libya, on one condition ... that he clearly steps aside from Libya's political life. This is what we are waiting for before launching a political process."
The rebels initially insisted that Gadhafi leave the country, and one of those who met Wednesday with Sarkozy maintained that view — while others are not ruling out the possibility that he could stay in Libya if he gives up power.
"I don't think there is a place for him (in Libya). He is a criminal now," Souleiman Fortia, the National Transitional Council's Misrata representative, told reporters after the meeting with the French president.
Misrata rebel military leaders Ramadan Zarmouh and Ahmed Hachem also met with Sarkozy.
Rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces have been locked in a stalemate with the rebels unable to advance beyond pockets in the west despite a NATO air campaign against Gadhafi's forces.
Rebel forces hold most of the east but have been unable to wrest the strategic oil town of Brega from Gadhafi's forces.
Mohammed Idris, a doctor at the Ajdabiya hospital where the casualties were taken, said 27 rebels were killed and 83 others were wounded Tuesday in fighting for Brega. That raised the six day death toll to 60, according to Idris.
Libya's government spokesman has put the rebel death toll closer to 500.
Fortia says that Misrata is the example, and "the key" to taking Tripoli and to tightening the noose around this dictator and his lackeys."
"With a little help from some friends, we will be in Tripoli very soon ... a matter of days," he contended during a news conference.
The plan is to move toward Tripoli from Zlitan and then Al Khums in a step-by-step advance, members of the delegation said.
"Their message was the following: what we did to liberate our city, we can do it to move forward toward Tripoli," said French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, who helped organize the meeting and has championed the Libyan rebel cause.
"If they (the rebels) have the means, they just need a few days to reach the doors of Tripoli. They are expected in the three cities before Tripoli by experienced fighters who are just waiting for them. So a few days will be enough," he said.
He said Sarkozy listened to them but did not say whether any aid or arms were pledged.
France has played a driving role in the NATO-led campaign of airstrikes, mandated by the U.N. to protect civilians from a crackdown by Gadhafi's forces on an uprising against his rule, amid revolts this year around the Arab world.
Last week, more than 30 nations including the United States gave the Libyan rebels a boost by recognizing their National Transitional Council as the country's legitimate government, potentially freeing up billions of dollars in urgently needed cash.
Associated Press writers Cecile Brisson and Angela Charlton in Paris and Rami al-Shaheibi in Benghazi, Libya, contributed to this report.