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U.S. officials tell Gadhafi to step down

TRIPOLI, Libya -- Representatives of Moammar Gadhafi's embattled government held face-to-face talks with U.S. officials in neighboring Tunisia over the weekend, a Libyan government official said yesterday, describing the meeting as a first step in opening dialogue.

A U.S. State Department official confirmed the meeting took place but said it was only to deliver a clear and firm message that Gadhafi must step down. It was not a negotiating session and no future meetings were planned, the official said.

The talks came after Friday's decision by the United States and more than 30 other nations meeting in Istanbul to recognize the eastern-based rebels fighting Gadhafi's government as the country's legitimate representatives, the official added.

Libyan spokesman Moussa Ibrahim told reporters in Tripoli that the talks were held Saturday in Tunisia but he refused to say who took part.

"This is a first step and we want to take further steps," he said. He described it as a "a first-step dialogue" to see about repairing relations between the two countries, which he said had been damaged by misinformation.

The United States was an active participant in NATO airstrikes against Libyan forces that began March 19 and were authorized by a UN mandate to protect civilians from Gadhafi's advancing forces. With command of the air campaign turned over later to NATO, the U.S. role in the continuing airstrikes is largely logistical.

Fighting continued Monday around the eastern oil port of Brega. An Associated Press reporter saw rocket duels and the thick black smoke of burning oil terminals blanketing the sky.

In Tripoli, Ibrahim claimed that more than 500 rebels had been killed in five days of failed assaults against Brega. Rebels, however, have reported only a handful of casualties and maintain that fighting continues in their attempt to take the oil terminal.

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