BEWARE ministers’ claims that a military campaign is making slow but steady progress. It nearly always means the opposite.

If ‘progress’ was really being made in Libya, why would it be necessary for Britain and France to send attack helicopters?

Why would Gen Sir David Richards, the chief of the defence staff, call for Nato to bomb infrastructure in Tripoli?

Above all, why has Barack Obama used his European tour this week to abandon his public caution and make it clear that regime change is now the western objective in Libya? The more Nato escalates in word and deed, the clearer it is that the campaign has stalled. What is going on in Libya is civil war but one that is stalemated, and has been so for at least a month.

Qadhafi’s forces will not be able to recapture Benghazi and the other major cities of eastern Libya just as the rebels will not be able to capture Tripoli. In light of this, Nato is doing all it can to assassinate Qadhafi in the fragile hope his death will lead to his regime’s implosion and rebel victory by a different route.

It is true Qadhafi and his family have done their best to suppress the building of independent political and administrative institutions during their decades in power. Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, where the army was able to break from supporting the dictator and real political parties existed, the Qadhafis have kept the state in their pocket. But even in this vacuum it does not follow that Qadhafi’s death would suddenly bring peace and end the many conflicts in Libyan society.

The word absent from Obama’s remarks recently, as well as from Sarkozy and Cameron, is ‘ceasefire’. An ‘immediate ceasefire’ was one of the main demands of the UN Security Council resolution, which also authorised a no-fly zone at the start of the crisis, but it has been consistently ignored by Nato. On Thursday, almost unreported anywhere, an African Union summit called for a halt to Nato’s airstrikes as well as a ceasefire and negotiations on transforming Libya into a democracy.

The same evening the Libyan prime minister, Al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi, said for the first time that his government was ready to talk to rebel leaders to prepare a new constitution. Meanwhile, Abdul Ilah al-Khatib, the UN secretary general’s special envoy on Libya, has been quietly shuttling between Tripoli and Benghazi, trying to broker a ceasefire and talks.

The obstacles are mainly on the rebels’ side. Flushed with military support from Nato, they insist that Qadhafi must leave power before any ceasefire. Sending Apache helicopters and escalating Nato’s offensive role only hardens the rebels’ intransigence and further delays a political resolution.

A ceasefire will have to be accompanied by an independent monitoring mission on the ground, preferably from the UN or the African Union, though Nato will no doubt keep up surveillance from the air. There has to be full access for humanitarian aid to civilians, as al-Khatib has been insisting. Close to a million people have fled the country. Tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes and are in dire need.

Nato officials promptly kicked the Libyan government’s offer of a ceasefire into the long grass on Friday, insisting it is ‘not credible’. How can they know that? They claim previous ceasefire offers were shams since Qadhafi’s forces never acted on them. But if they are to stick, ceasefires have to be mutual and the rebel side has never offered one. — The Guardian, London

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