Tripoli: Muammar Gaddafi is the historical choice of the Libyan people and cannot be moved aside, his government said on Sunday, stepping back from earlier statements offering an election on his future role.
"Muammar Gaddafi is Libya`s historical symbol, and he is above all political actions, above all political and tactical games," government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said in a statement issued late on Sunday.
"In this current stage and in the future, Gaddafi is the historical choice which we cannot drop."
"As for the current and future Libya, it is up to the people and the leadership to decide it, and it is not up to the armed groups, nor up to NATO to decide it," the statement said.
Gaddafi, who has run his oil-producing country since coming to power in a military coup in 1969, is under pressure to relinquish power from rebels who rose up against his rule and from a NATO bombing campaign.
But cracks are emerging within the Western alliance too, with some NATO member states anxious about civilian casualties, the cost of the campaign and the fact Gaddafi has not been dislodged after more than three months of air strikes.
Libya`s rebel leadership in its eastern stronghold of Benghazi has said it is in indirect contact with Gaddafi`s government, raising the possibility of a political settlement to the conflict, which has killed thousands of people.
But the government spokesman said in the statement that talk of a deal was premature.
"It is not possible for a new stage to begin before NATO stops its aggression against Libya. As for the armed groups, they have no force on the ground, nor popular representation," the statement said.
Ibrahim said he issued the statement to clarify remarks he made earlier on Sunday. At the time, he had told reporters in Tripoli the government was proposing a period of national dialogue and an election overseen by international observers.
"If the Libyan people decide Gaddafi should leave he will leave. If the people decide he should stay he will stay," Ibrahim said earlier in the day.
The idea of holding an election was first raised earlier this month by one of Gaddafi`s sons, Saif al-Islam.
The proposal lost momentum when Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Ali Al-Mahmoudi appeared to dismiss it. At the time, it was also rejected by anti-Gaddafi rebels in the east of Libya, and by Washington.
Many analysts say Gaddafi and his family have no intention of relinquishing power. Instead, they say, the Libyan leader is holding out the possibility of a deal to try to widen cracks that have been emerging in the alliance ranged against him.
Libyan government forces have been fighting rebels, backed by NATO air power, since February 17, when thousands of people rose up in a rebellion against Gaddafi`s rule.
The revolt has turned into the bloodiest of the Arab Spring uprisings sweeping the Middle East.
Rebels now control the eastern third of the country, and some enclaves in the West. They have been unable though to break through to the capital, leaving Western powers banking on an uprising in Tripoli to overthrow Gaddafi.
Anti-Gaddafi fighters are trying to push west to Tripoli from Misrata, a city they control about 200 km (130 miles) east of the capital. Their way is blocked by Gaddafi forces concentrated in the neighbouring town of Zlitan.
A rebel spokesman in Zlitan said that NATO had been attacking pro-Gaddafi forces in the town.
"NATO has been doing a good job here," said the spokesman, who identified himself as Mabrouk. "NATO has given the (pro-Gaddafi) brigades an ultimatum to leave their positions and checkpoints. It expires on June 26, tonight."
The alliance has in the past transmitted warnings to government troops by breaking into their radio frequencies and by dropping leaflets over their positions.
The rebel spokesman added: "The humanitarian situation is getting worse. There are shortages of foodstuffs and medicine. Fuel and gas do not exist."
The Libyan leader suffered a propaganda defeat on Saturday when, according to the rebel leadership in Benghazi, four members of the national soccer team and 13 other football figures defected to the rebels.
Libyans are passionate about the sport and the national team was closely aligned with Gaddafi`s rule. At one point his son, Saadi, played in the side.
Asked about the defections, government spokesman Ibrahim said: "The Libyan football team is full and functioning and performing all of its duties inside and outside Libya."
A momentary thaw in the fighting allowed the Red Cross to reunite dozens of people, who had been caught on the wrong side of the conflict, with their families.
A ship, the Ionis, arrived in Tripoli`s port on Sunday carrying 106 people from the main rebel stronghold in Benghazi, eastern Libya. Many of the passengers were elderly, and families with small children.
A crowd of a few dozen people waited for the ship to dock, among them Mohammed Al-Gimzi. "I love Muammar Gaddafi very much," he said.
When Al-Gimzi`s sister disembarked from the ship, he rushed to greet her and the two stood weeping with their heads on each other`s shoulders. "I am very happy to see my sister again," he said, tears running down his face.
As part of the same exchange, a ship carried around 300 people from Tripoli to Benghazi on Friday. They included dozens of rebel supporters who had been detained and later released.
"This is purely humanitarian, for families to meet with their loved ones and to be able to travel," Robin Waudo, a spokesman in Tripoli for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said on Sunday.