Tripoli: Libya`s Muammar Gaddafi is willing to hold elections and step aside if he lost, his son said on Thursday, an offer unlikely to placate his opponents but which could test the unity of the Western alliance trying to force him out.
The proposal -- which follows a string of concessions offered by the Libyan leader that Western powers have dismissed as ploys -- comes at a time when frustration is mounting in some NATO states at the progress of the military campaign.
Four months into Libya`s conflict, rebel advances toward Tripoli are slow at best, while weeks of NATO air strikes pounding Gaddafi`s compound and other targets have failed to end his 41-year-old rule over the oil-producing country.
A series of explosions was heard from Gaddafi`s compound in Tripoli in the early hours of Thursday and plumes of smoke rose into the sky, a news agency reporter in the city said.
"They (elections) could be held within three months. At the maximum by the end of the year, and the guarantee of transparency could be the presence of international observers," Gaddafi`s son Saif al-Islam told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.
He said his father, who came to power in the same year that man first set foot on the moon, would be ready to step aside if he lost the election but would not go into exile.
"I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Libyans stand with my father and sees the rebels as fanatical Islamist fundamentalists, terrorists stirred up from abroad," the newspaper quoted Saif al-Islam as saying.
The offer was made as Mikhail Margelov, the envoy leading Russia`s efforts to end the conflict, arrived in Tripoli for talks with Gaddafi`s government.
The Kremlin, which says Gaddafi should quit but opposes NATO`s action in Libya, has said it is ready to help negotiate the Libyan leader`s departure.
"Clearly the talks in Tripoli will not be easy," Russia`s Interfax news agency quoted Margelov as saying before he left for Tripoli.
"In the Arab world there is a tradition of forgiveness and conciliation, and many formerly odious leaders of regimes in the region continue to live in their countries ... despite having been overthrown," he was quoted as saying.
It was not clear what form the vote proposed by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi would take. Libya has never held elections under Gaddafi and has no elected institutions.
There was no immediate reaction to the offer from the NATO military alliance or the rebels.
Saif al-Islam is one of three Libyan leaders wanted by an international war crimes prosecutor, but before the conflict he had frequent contacts with Western governments and helped negotiate the end of international sanctions seven years ago.
Libya-watchers say Gaddafi is using his political skills, honed during decades when he was able to survive despite being an international pariah, to try to exploit divisions within the fragile Western alliance ranged against him.
NATO began air strikes on Tripoli after Gaddafi`s troops used force to put down a rebellion against his rule in February. The Libyan leader has described the rebels as "rats" and says NATO`s campaign is an act of colonial aggression aimed at stealing Libya`s oil.
Rebel forces are now fighting Gaddafi`s troops on three fronts: in the east of the country around the oil town of Brega; on the edge of rebel-held Misrata, Libya`s third-biggest city, and in the Western Mountains south-west of Tripoli.
Rebels in the Western Mountains said on Wednesday they had taken control of two villages from pro-Gaddafi forces, building on gains which in the past few days have seen them advance to within about 100 km (60 miles) of Tripoli.
But rebel forces show no signs of being able to break through to the capital soon. In the meantime, the strains of the operation -- which has now gone on for longer than its backers anticipated -- are showing within the NATO alliance.
The US defense secretary rounded on European allies last week for failing to back the mission the alliance took over in late March.
Republicans in Congress have demanded that US President Barack Obama urgently explain the legal grounds for US military involvement in Libya, prompting the White House to urge them not to send "mixed messages."
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, speaking in London on Wednesday after meeting the British prime minister, said NATO would stay the course.
"Allies and partners are committed to provide the necessary resources and assets to continue this operation and see it through to a successful conclusion," Rasmussen said.