France said Muammar Gaddafi was ready to leave power, according to emissaries, the latest sign contacts were underway between the Libyan leader and NATO members to find a way out of the crisis.
"Emissaries are telling us Gaddafi is ready to go, let's talk about it," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said, without revealing who the emissaries were. "The question is no longer about whether Gaddafi goes but when and how," Juppe said.
NATO powers have until now been focussed firmly on air strikes and backing the rebels trying to overthrow Gaddafi, but five months into the insurrection and with no sign of a breakthrough, attention is switching to a political solution.
"Everybody is in contact with everybody. The Libyan regime is sending messengers everywhere, to Turkey, New York, Paris," Juppe said on France Info state radio. "There are contacts but it's not a negotiation proper at this stage."
How reliable the information from the emissaries is remains unclear and many observers warn of the need to be cautious about taking everything emanating from the Libyan government at face value. In April officials said they were preparing a new constitution and wider political reforms, but the details were vague with no reference to the role Gaddafi would play.
Thousands of Libyans, inspired by revolutions in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, rose up against Gaddafi's rule in February. That prompted a fierce crackdown by his security forces in which, rights groups say, thousands of people were killed.
The Western bombing campaign began a month later under a United Nations mandate to protect civilians. But Gaddafi defiantly holds on to power despite the air strikes, sanctions, and the defection of members of government and military.
Gaddafi says the rebels are armed criminals and al Qaeda militants. He has called the NATO operation an act of colonial aggression aimed at stealing Libyan oil.
Rebel advances towards the capital which some in the West had thought could trigger the collapse of Gaddafi's rule have made slow and costly progress.
Shelling by forces loyal to Gaddafi on Monday killed eight rebel fighters and wounded 25 on the Mediterranean coast about 160km east of Tripoli, hospital workers in the nearby city of Misrata said.
It was not clear how Gaddafi, who has refused to even contemplate relinquishing power, could be persuaded to change his mind through negotiations.
Some analysts say Gaddafi will only step down if he is left with no other options, but appeals for negotiations could be seen in Tripoli as a sign the West's resolve is weakening, and encourage Gaddafi to hold on longer.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, who is visiting Libya's neighbour Algeria on Tuesday, added his voice to the calls for a deal.
"We are convinced that the Libyan crisis requires a political solution characterised by an end to fighting, Gaddafi, who lacks all legitimacy, leaving the stage, and the launching of an inclusive democratic process involving all parts of Libyan society," Frattini told Algeria's El Khabar newspaper.
NATO-member Italy has provided air bases from which alliance warplanes bomb Libya. Last week Frattini's boss, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, exposed new cracks in the alliance by saying he had opposed the bombing of Libya.
U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said some NATO states operating in Libya could soon see their technical ability to maintain the operation exhausted, another source of friction between NATO allies.
"The problem right now, frankly, in Libya is that ... within the next 90 days a lot of these other countries could be exhausted in terms of their capabilities, and so the United States, you know, is going to be looked at to help fill the gap," Panetta said, speaking to troops in Baghdad on Monday.
More strains over Libya are expected to surface on Friday when the contact group, which brings together the countries allied against Gaddafi, meets in Istanbul.