Could Gaddafi go into 'internal exile' in Libya
Talk of Col Gaddafi possibly staying on in Libya as part of a peace deal has not come out of the blue.
For weeks now the UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, other members of the Libyan Contact Group and even the Russian President have been saying that "Gaddafi has lost legitimacy and should go," while carefully failing to specify whether that meant he should literally leave the country.
At the end of June, one press spokesman for the Libyan rebels' Transitional National Council floated the idea of internal exile. It caused something of a flutter in Benghazi, the rebels' stronghold, and was contradicted by others. But now the idea is being circulated more widely.
Last week in Paris, the French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, raised eyebrows when for the first time he suggested that one possibility being considered was that Col Gaddafi could stay on in Libya if he stood down as leader.
Then this week, the main rebel leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal in which he too said that Gaddafi and his family could stay on in Libya but only under certain conditions.
"We will decide where he stays and who watches him," said Mr Jalil.Delicate matters
Now, William Hague has clarified that Britain too would be prepared to go along with internal exile as a possible part of any peace deal.
Foreign Office sources insist this is not a change of British policy, nor that the military conflict in Libya has reached a stalemate. They dismiss the idea that there is a risk that Col Gaddafi could see the shift as weakness, a concession to accommodate his insistence that staying on in Libya is non-negotiable.
As for how internal exile could square with the International Criminal Court's warrant for his arrest on suspicion of war crimes, no one seems willing to address the issue; though some Libyan rebels clearly remain troubled at the thought of any deal that might seem to offer the Colonel immunity from prosecution.
Perhaps aware that this is a delicate issue still to be negotiated, Mr Hague brushed aside a question on the matter, saying it was hypothetical.Complicated deal
What is clear is that mediation efforts are gathering pace. The Libyan Foreign Minister turned up in Moscow last week. He was in Cairo and Tunis this week.
The UN special envoy on Libya, Abdul Elah Al Khatib, is completing his latest round of shuttle diplomacy between the rebels in Benghazi and the Gaddafi government in Tripoli.
No one is suggesting he is close to getting agreement on even preliminary negotiations. But there seems to be a growing feeling that it may not be a dramatic military advance by the rebels and the fall of Tripoli that will mark the endgame to this conflict.
Instead what may emerge is a complicated deal struck between rebels and erstwhile Gaddafi loyalists to get the Libyan leader out of the picture and open up the way for a national transitional government.
No black and white scenario, but something, as one diplomat put it "a little grubbier". And that, inevitably, will involve compromises on both sides.