Split emerges among Libyan rebel groups

BENGHAZI, Libya — An offer from Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to open negotiations to end the three-week-old war has revealed a split within the rebel movement that controls this city and much of the eastern half of Libya.

As a rebel volunteer predicted, shaking his head, when he heard the news, "Gadhafi is trying to create a state of confusion."

By Tuesday afternoon, the division was playing out on television for all in the east to see, as the president of the rebel National Libyan Council, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, said he'd consider negotiations. Hours later, after angry young people poured into the streets in protest, Abdul-Jalil's spokesman held a news conference to say the liberated east wasn't open to negotiations.

Whether the council truly speaks for the ragtag rebel movement that seems to have no leader has been a rising question here as it becomes obvious that the struggle to topple Gadhafi has turned into a civil war and may last a long time.

Brazen rebel fighters who easily took one town after another now are fighting to keep what they gained, only slightly more organized than they were when they arrived at battle in taxis and their own cars.

Tensions among residents here are increasing, and it's unclear what role, if any, the council has in organizing fighters or governing safe areas.

The sense of confusion grows as rebels come under a siege from pro-Gadhafi forces they hadn't really fought in the first heady days of the revolt.

Pro-Gadhafi forces appeared ever closer Tuesday to overcoming rebel fighters in Zawiya, just outside Tripoli, after another major offensive against the city, whose fighters are short on ammunition and food.

In the oil town of Ras Lanouf in the east, 210 miles from Benghazi on the main coastal highway that links this city with Tripoli, rebels said Tuesday night that they were facing a barrage of rocket fire.

"They are killing us!" Saleh Zway screamed as he fired his machine gun. He couldn't say more because he had to get back to the fight.

Tuesday morning, the Arabic satellite news channel Al Jazeera reported that a group had traveled here to discuss negotiations for Gadhafi. In return for a haven for his family, access to his assets and no chance of prosecution, Gadhafi would surrender, the report said. In a later phone interview with another satellite news channel, Al Arabiya, Abdul-Jalil said that if Gadhafi forces stopped fighting for 72 hours, negotiations could begin.