Halt to rebel advance creates Libyan divide

A Libyan rebel guards oil facilities near the rebel-held port town of Brega (29 March 2011)
Image caption The rebels' westward advance appears to have been halted

The current fighting in central Libya could not have turned out better for Col Muammar Gaddafi and his supporters.

At the very moment when Libya's fate is being discussed in London, his forces are consolidating their control over the western half of the country up to and beyond Sirte.

A senior official close to Col Gaddafi whom I have been speaking to said he thought the government here could accept that Libya was now irrevocably separated into two parts.

After a ceasefire, he said, the two sides could get down to negotiations and work out a deal, which would have to include the division of oil revenues.

All this will probably turn out to be much too optimistic, but it reflects a sense of genuine relief here that the rebels are no longer threatening Sirte and the west.

There is a hidden fault-line in the centre of the country which seems to separate Col Gaddafi's Libya from rebel-held Libya.

On the western side he is more popular than he is hated; on the eastern side it is the other way round.

Different planet

Again and again the government here has warned that the rebels are al-Qaeda volunteers, and that the West is wilfully ignoring this.

Having reported extensively on the rebels in the past month, I can say with some confidence that there is very little sign of Islamic fundamentalism among them.

But intelligence had shown "flickers" of al-Qaeda or Hezbollah presence, Nato's supreme commander, US Adm James Stavridis said on Tuesday, giving evidence in Washington.

This too has been received with amusement and pleasure here.

"They will see in the end that we have been right all along," the official I spoke to said.

From the vantage point of Tripoli, a good deal of what is happening at the London conference seems far removed from the reality on the ground here.

While the various leaders discuss whether Col Gaddafi should be sent to the International Criminal Court, or encouraged to go to some unnamed country in Africa, officials here are certain that neither option is remotely possible.

'He will never leave Libya,' the official I spoke to said. He meant, Colonel Gaddafi will never leave the country alive.