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Libyan officials tried to 'buy time' to stop rebel onslaught

By Jill Dougherty, CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent
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Concern over Libya's future grows
  • Libyan officials were trying to buy time, U.S. official says
  • He adds that NTC had a lot more communication with Tripoli than was known
  • NTC has "quite detailed" plans for post-Gadhafi period, it is said

Tune in to "AC360" at 8 ET for live reports from CNN reporters on the ground in Libya, as rebels battle Moammar Gadhafi loyalists for control of Tripoli.

Washington (CNN) -- Up until the last minutes before the rebel offensive on Tripoli began, senior Libyan officials close to Moammar Gadhafi were trying to reach out to the United States in a desperate attempt to stop the "inevitable," a senior State Department official told CNN on Monday.

In a telephone interview from Cairo Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said that, until Saturday night, six officials with whom the United States had previous contact were still trying to reach out to the Obama administration but were taking a "defiant" approach, saying they were ready to negotiate but it would not be about Gadhafi leaving.

"It hinted to us that there's a sense of desperation," Feltman, who leads State Department efforts on Libya and who was in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi over the weekend, said, "that they're trying all channels to reach us, that the balance was tipping on behalf of the rebels or why would these people be so desperate to find us?"

"I think they were looking for a way to find a lifeline, buy time, to prevent what was then becoming inevitable, which was the uprising in Tripoli," he said.

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The contacts stopped Saturday night when the rebellion started inside Tripoli. "In hindsight," Feltman says, "I think it's clear it was an attempt to buy time. When they looked at a map and saw Tripoli starting to be surrounded I think they saw what was inevitable."

As rebels struggle for final control of Tripoli, U.S. officials tell CNN that initial signs are "encouraging," with no reports of any widespread looting or people taking justice into their own hands for retribution.

"I'm encouraged by these reports that they've set up check points to promote public safety and around public buildings," Feltman said. "Tripoli does not look like Baghdad looked after the fall of Saddam Hussein and I think that's encouraging."

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Feltman also said he is encouraged by the amount of contact "clearly going" on between the National Transitional Council in Benghazi and rebel forces inside Tripoli.

"There was more communication between Tripoli and Benghazi than certainly I knew was there," he says. "For example, Saturday night we were seeing high-level officials in Benghazi who basically said, 'OK, in an hour Tripoli's going to rise up and this is what's going to happen. It's going to start in this neighborhood, they're going to go out to the mosques and start doing the call to prayer... So it was clear from that description that there's a lot more communication than what was apparent publicly between the NTC in Benghazi and Tripoli."

Feltman said "the NTC did its homework" but cautions, "This is a very fluid situation and I wouldn't want to predict with any kind of accuracy that it's all going to work. You have 42 years of the Libyan people basically being in a political coma and all of a sudden they're having to rule themselves in a far different way, and I can't imagine that that's going to be without challenges."

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Separately, a senior U.S. official, who spoke on background because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue, tells CNN that the NTC has a series of plans that are "quite detailed" about running public services in an interim period" as well as how to make sure that the government is properly inclusive.

"Because right now they've got to make sure that they do not end up looking to be a sort of Eastern colonial power... they've got to make sure they're inclusive and have enough popular legitimacy to go forward," this official says.

One issue is when the NTC leadership might move from Benghazi to Tripoli. This official has heard reports that some NTC officials now are re-locating from Benghazi to Misrata and the Western Mountains of Libya with the idea of going to Tripoli as soon as there is sufficient security to protect them. "They would be primary targets for any remaining Gadhafi forces," the official says.

The NTC's plans "for not the day after but for the weeks after are pretty good," this official says. "They have set up a timeline but it's getting from today through Gadhafi's actual departure altogether, to where they're all sitting in Tripoli implementing a transition -- that's the period I'm a bit concerned about and I think that they are doing a good job, but we'll just have to see. They have lots of good stuff on paper but it's translating it from paper into practice that remains to be seen, particularly in the initial period."

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