France pushes for diplomatic talks with Qaddafi

France is urging the Libyan opposition to sit down and negotiate with Muammar al-Qaddafi, the country's defense minister said yesterday in Paris. Gérard Longuet said it was time to "get round the table" and "speak to each other."

He added, "The position of the [Transitional National Council] TNC is very far from other positions."

You might recall France was the first country to recognize the TNC. And it pushed its NATO allies into initiating the military campaign against Qaddafi. It even fired the first shots against Qaddafi's regime. At the time, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the world had to prevent Qaddafi's "murderous madness" against civilians.

"This is a huge transformation," said Melissa Bell of France 24. "From the beginning it was always a question of Qaddafi leaving."

France sparked angry responses from Russian and African leaders when it parachuted weapons to Libyan rebels. Last week, Longuet said France would no longer arm the opposition.

So, what changed? Why is France shifting away from its gung-ho anti-Qaddafi position from earlier this spring?

For starters, the war has dragged on far longer than most people anticipated it would, and France seems to be growing impatient.

There is also frustration with the rebels, who have shown little desire to enter negotiations to end the conflict.

According to the Daily Telegraph, a senior Western diplomat said France was "sending a message" to the rebels that the clock is ticking to bring the conflict to an end. NATO's mandate in Libya is due to expire at the end of September.

"There is general recognition among Western diplomats that the structure of the state existing in the western part of the country should not be completely disregarded in the event of a quick collapse of the Qaddafi regime," the source added.

Observers have noted the campaign is not going as well as it could. George Robertson, the former British defense secretary and former NATO secretary-general told Foreign Policy that European countries lack the military capacity to bring the operation to a close.

"In Libya, the Americans did what I always suggested they might do -- which is to say, 'It's your fight; please take the lead. You're big enough; you're brave enough; you're strong enough. You do it,'" Robertson said.

As in Washington, the Libya war is taking a political toll on the administration in Paris.

Tomorrow, the French Parliament will vote whether to continue supplying the Libya mission. France 24 reports that the measure is likely to win approval but, coming at a time when progress seems to have stalled, it raises tricky questions for the government.

And campaign season has begun in France -- with presidential elections set for early next year, Libya could potentially hurt Sarkozy's chances. The military mission is costing France 1 million a day, according to France 24.

All that said, it isn't entirely clear what France's position is exactly.

After Longuet's statement, French Foreign Secretary Alain Juppé backtracked a bit, saying, "The question is not to know whether he must leave, but when and how."

Today, after Qaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, told an Algerian paper that Sarkozy met with an envoy of his father to discuss political solutions, Paris quickly denied the story.

"There are no direct negotiations between France and the Qaddafi regime, but we pass messages through the rebel council [TNC] and our allies," a spokesman said.

Ironically, Washington finds itself in a bit of a role reversal with Paris. Responding to the defense minister's comments, a State Department spokesperson said, "The Libyan people will be the ones to decide how this transition takes place, but we stand firm in our belief that Qaddafi cannot remain in power."

They'll have a lot to talk about when the United States, France, and other allies meet in Istanbul on Friday to discuss progress.

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News of the World scandal widens

News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch arrived in London yesterday to oversee the final edition of News of the World but the controversy over its phone-hacking racket continued to unfold today, with the revelations of more victims -- including former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Prince Charles and Camilla, and 9/11 victims.

Gordon Brown and his family was targeted

The former prime minister was repeatedly targeted by the tabloid and its sister publications over a period of 10 years before and during his time at 10 Downing Street, according to the Guardian's Nick Davies (who has emerged as the Bob Woodward of this scandal). Not only did reporters try to hack his voice mail -- they also stole information about his bank account, legal files, and some of his family's medical records (sometimes by pretending to be him in order to get access to private accounts). They hacked his accountant's computer to steal tax paperwork. And a private investigator may have also "used a serving police officer" to search secret government records about the prime minister.

Davies found:

- Scotland Yard has discovered references to both Brown and his wife, Sarah, in paperwork seized from Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator who specialized in phone hacking for the News of the World;

- Abbey National Bank found evidence suggesting that a "blagger" [someone pretending to be Brown] acting for the Sunday Times [a paper owned by Murdoch] on six occasions posed as Brown and gained details from his account;

- Brown's London lawyers, Allen & Overy, were tricked into handing over details from his file by a conman working for the Sunday Times;

- Details about Brown's infant son's medical records were obtained by the Sun [another News Corp. publication], which published a story about the child's serious illness.

Obviously, this goes way beyond reporting at this point. These people should be working for a spy agency.

More royal hacking

Davies also reported today that police had warned the royal family that they found evidence of further phone hacking. This time, the victims were Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall. Davies said the count of royals -- and royal staff -- who have been caught up in the scandal now stands at 10.

Davies said there are other unidentified royal family members who have also been identified as victims by Scotland Yard.

Meanwhile, the BBC reported today that there's evidence a News of the World reporter tried to buy a stolen phone book with the phone numbers of royal family members. The book was offered for £1,000 by a police officer.

9/11 victims may have been targeted

It can hardly come as a shock -- given that we already knew the paper spied into the phone records of British 7/7 terrorist attack victims -- but Britain's Daily Mirror reported that journalists at the tabloid also tried to get information about dead 9/11 victims. According to the rival British paper, a New York policeman claimed he was contacted by News of the World journalists, offering to pay him money to retrieve the victims' private phone records -- particularly British victims.

Central figure in the scandal to be questioned -- but not as a suspect

Meanwhile, Rebekah Brooks, the News International executive who was editor of the News of the World from 2000 to 2003 -- will reportedly be questioned by police soon, according to the BBC. She will only be questioned as a witness, not as a suspect, reportedly. Despite overseeing the paper at the height of the activity, she denies ever knowing the hacking was going on. Brooks's successor at the paper, Andy Coulson, was arrested Friday in connection with the paper's illegal activities.

Rupert Murdoch has stood by Brooks -- who rose from secretary to editor of the paper. Her onetime friend, however, Prime Minister David Cameron, has suggested she should have been fired.

The BBC reported today that a "well-placed source" said in 2006 that Brooks "called the Browns to inform them she knew their son Fraser was suffering from cystic fibrosis. The Browns believe only medical staff treating Fraser had access to that information and friends of the family say Ms Brooks' call caused them immense distress since they were only just coming to terms with the diagnosis."

If true, she would seemingly have a lot to talk about when she meets with the police.

Celebrities fight back

There's been some strong reaction from alleged celebrity victims of the hacking and others who have been targeted by the paper in the past.

George Michael tweeted that the news of the paper's closure last week was "a fantastic day for Britain."

On Thursday, Hugh Grant called out politicians for being "terrified to take on any of the tabloids, but especially anything from News International."

And in a video you have to see from over the weekend, British comedian Steve Coogan, who is also thought to be a victim of phone-hacking, confronted a former editor at the News of the World, who defended the paper's actions ("What better source of getting the truth [than] to listen to somebody's messages?"). Coogan called the editor "a walking PR disaster" and "morally bankrupt."

"You are not uncovering corruption; you are not bringing down institutions that are inherently corrupt," Coogan said. "You are just trying to find out who is sleeping with who. It is about selling newspapers."

Watch the whole fiery confrontation below.

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