TRIPOLI – Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has made clear that he will not step down, despite the first big protest against him in the capital in months and a U.N. warning on Tuesday that his government was running out of food.
Gaddafi is emphatic he will not leave Libya, South African President Jacob Zuma said after talks with the Libyan leader, dashing prospects for a negotiated end to the conflict.
Zuma was in Tripoli on Monday to try to revive an African "roadmap" for ending the conflict, which started in February with an uprising against Gaddafi and has since turned into a war with thousands of people killed.
Libyan rebels and NATO have set Gaddafi's departure as the main condition for any ceasefire. With Gaddafi's refusal to leave, the talks with Zuma produced no breakthrough.
But new questions emerged over how long Gaddafi could hold on after a senior United Nations aid official said shortages of food and medicine in areas of Libya controlled by Gaddafi amounted to a "time bomb."
Panos Moumtzis, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Libya, told Reuters in Tripoli that some food stocks in areas under Gaddafi's control were likely to last only weeks.
"I don't think there's any famine, malnutrition. But the longer the conflict lasts the more the food stocks supplies are going to be depleted, and it's a matter of weeks before the country reaches a critical situation," Moumtzis said in an interview.
"The food and the medical supplies is a little bit like a time bomb. At the moment it's under control and it's ok. But if this goes on for quite some time, this will become a major issue," he said.
PROTEST IN TRIPOLI
In another development that cast doubt on Gaddafi's assertions that he is in control, witnesses in the Souq al-Juma suburb of Tripoli said a large anti-government protest took place there on Monday. Their accounts lent weight to rebel claims that opposition to Gaddafi was stirring in the capital.
The protest, apparently the biggest confirmed protest inside Tripoli since Western forces began bombing the country in March, was broken up by security forces firing weapons, residents said.
Asked about the incident at a news conference on Tuesday, government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said: "I have heard of the event. I did not have enough time to get information."
Gaddafi's officials had earlier denied that a large anti-government demonstration took place on Monday.
Large scale demonstrations in Tripoli have not taken place since protests were crushed by the security forces in February.
Activists had released a video on Monday which they said showed hundreds of demonstrators attending a funeral in Souq al-Juma earlier that day for two slain protesters.
State television broadcasts daily rallies in support of Gaddafi and many people in Tripoli tell foreign journalists that they back the Libyan leader.
In conversations with a group of foreign correspondents, several residents reported nightly armed clashes in the area between people opposed to the government and security forces.
Now in its fourth month, Libya's conflict is deadlocked on the ground, with anti-Gaddafi rebels unable to break out of their strongholds and advance toward Tripoli, where Gaddafi appears to be firmly entrenched.