Two months had passed since Libyans first took to the streets. Hundreds were dead as government forces and NATO-backed rebels fought a brutal conflict, but in a hotel room 2,000 miles away the warring sides agreed a secret deal to end the war.
The confidential Norwegian-brokered talks – full details of which are being revealed exclusively by The Independent on the tenth anniversary of the NATO bombing campaign – were the closest the world came to a peaceful end to Libya’s 2011 civil war.
The two sides agreed to a draft text stating that Muammar Gaddafi – who had ruled Libya for 42 years – would step down and leave politics, but keep the institutions of state in place.
In the end the talks fell apart and rebels, with NATO’s support, ultimately captured and killed Gaddafi – with more than 1,000 civilians killed during the war, according to new research by the civilian casualty monitor Airwars.
In the decade since Libya has been embroiled in perpetual conflict, with the country eventually becoming the second largest base for the so-called Islamic State. This week an interim unity government was sworn in, the latest political attempt to stem violence in the country.
In his first interview with international media regarding the 2011 negotiations, then-Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Store, who brokered the deal, accused France and Britain of opposing a negotiated solution.
Then UK Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have long been accused in some quarters of seeking regime change at all costs, claims they deny.
“I felt that the mindset in London and Paris didn’t have openings for really reflecting on the diplomatic option,” Store told The Independent. “Were (France and Britain) willing to look at something beyond military solutions? The jury is still out.”
“Had there been in the international community a willingness to pursue this track with some authority and dedication, I believe there could have been an opening to achieve a less dramatic outcome and avoid the collapse of the Libyan state.”
In February 2011 Libya followed other Arab countries into uprising, with tens of thousands taking to the streets demanding an end to Gaddafi’s rule.
Security forces cracked down brutally and Gaddafi promised to crush the rats on the streets.
On March 17th 2011, the United Nations voted to intervene to stop Gaddafi killing his own people, with NATO aircraft flying more than 7,000 strike sorties against Gaddafi’s forces over the following seven months.
But Gaddafi’s allies were also quietly seeking a negotiated outcome. While publicly promising to crush the rebellion, Gaddafi’s favoured and most prominent son Saif al-Islam invited top Norwegian officials to Tripoli to negotiate.
Two senior Norwegian officials were even in the Presidential Palace in Tripoli with Saif al-Islam when the UN resolution was passed in New York, Store said. They had to be hurriedly driven across the border into Tunisia for their own safety, with the first NATO airstrikes imminent.
Norway became an active member of the NATO bombing campaign, eventually dropping nearly 600 bombs. But at the same time the country’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who is now NATO’s secretary general, asked foreign minister Store to continue the top secret talks – hosting them in Norway.
The country has a long history of quiet diplomacy in the Middle East, including brokering the 1993 Oslo Accords that saw mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
They were not the only ones attempting negotiation – the African Union tried to broker its own peace deal – but Norway achieved a breakthrough.
After weeks of back and forth talks, Store organised the first face-to-face meeting between senior regime and opposition officials in an Oslo hotel room on April 27th.
Representing the Gaddafi loyalists was Mohammed Ismail, righthand man to Saif al-Islam. For the rebels it was Aly Zeidan, a senior figure in the opposition National Transitional Council who would go on to be a Prime Minister in post-Gaddafi Libya.
Multiple attempts to reach Zeidan for this article failed. Ismail initially told The Independent he was willing to discuss the talks but did not reply to multiple follow up messages.
Store said the atmosphere was “emotional – these were people who in front of us could share how they knew the same people and both cared about their country”.
Norwegian diplomats went back and forth, eventually hammering out a ‘comprehensive plan’ to end the crisis. The first line stated: “Colonel Gaddafi has decided to leave power and step aside and to end the first phase of the revolution.”
Store even spoke to Saif al-Islam on the phone to confirm this plan had backing at the highest levels in Libya.
What would happen to Muammar Gaddafi, however, remained a key sticking point. The famously erratic leader was refusing to leave Libya, with negotiations around whether he could remain in the country but leave politics.
“People very close to Gaddafi, people in the legal apparatus, in his family, supported what was on the table,” said Staale Wiig, a Norwegian biographer of Store who first uncovered the existence of the negotiations years after the war. “But the final mile was for Gaddafi to say ‘I agree to move into exile’ or where he would live.”
Store himself accepts “we don’t know” if Gaddafi would have been willing to ultimately resign or if more extreme rebel groups on the ground would have accepted a deal, but said major Western nations weren’t interested in a negotiated settlement.
He said they took the deal agreed in Oslo to the United States, France and Britain. In Libya the war had reached a stalemate, with relatively few civilians killed in May, June or July new research shows.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was reportedly keen but the other two nations weren’t interested, Store said.
“Had there been a will to do it… one could have imagined some kind of ceasefire in the military campaign to allow diplomats to move in,” Store said.
“But the military operation had already lasted for eight weeks, the dynamic on the ground was changing, and frankly speaking the will to rally behind such a process was not there.”
William Hague, UK foreign secretary at the time, declined to comment. David Cameron’s office did not respond but in his autobiography he denied seeking regime change, saying he “pushed and pushed” for a negotiated settlement but Gaddafi was unwilling.
After the 2011 war Libya slid into a new civil war, which lasted much of the last decade. Barack Obama later described the lack of post-conflict planning as the “worst mistake” of his presidency, with the country becoming a battleground for rival regional powers.
During a decade of war hundreds of civilians have died with the United Nations only brokering a deal to restore peace last year.
Store, who now leads Norway’s opposition Labor Party, said the failure to take the 2011 negotiations seriously was made more tragic by the lost decade that followed it, in which the country became “a theatre for remote battles – other countries fighting it out to the last Libyan.”