Britain is reluctantly accepting suggestions from Libyan rebels that Muammar Gaddafi be allowed to remain in Libya in return for abandoning his grip on power.
Foreign secretary William Hague indicated at a press conference yesterday that the UK would be prepared to accept such a move, despite previously calling for Colonel Gaddafi to face the international criminal court (ICC).
The defiant leader, who has survived four months of war against rebel forces backed by Nato air power, has vowed to fight on until the end. The ICC has issued an arrest warrant for his decision to order indiscriminate attacks on Libyan civilians as he sought to crush the Arab Spring uprising of late February.
"What is absolutely clear… is that whatever happens Gaddafi must leave power," Mr Hague said in a joint press conference with French foreign minister Alain Juppe.
"He must never again be able to threaten the lives of Libyan civilians nor to destabilise Libya once he has left power.
"Obviously him leaving Libya itself would be the best way of showing the Libyan people that they no longer have to live in fear of Gaddafi.
"But as I have said all along, this is ultimately a question for Libyans to determine."
Diplomacy with Col Gaddafi's Tripoli regime is taking place through a number of routes, including through direct talks with UN officials and other negotiations with African leaders.
David Cameron and South African president Jacob Zuma clashed on the UK prime minister's recent visit to Pretoria.
Mr Zuma made clear that African Union states disagreed with the west's demands that political negotiations only begin after Col Gaddafi's exit from power.
Mr Cameron replied: "The difference is the president sees that [the removal of Gaddafi] as the outcome of a political process, whereas I believe for a political process to work that has to be the starting point."
Michael Jay, the Foreign Office's permanent secretary from 2002 until 2006, told politics.co.uk earlier this month he thought Britain had been "too prescriptive" in laying out the terms for the end of the conflict.
"The realpolitik is do you want to make certain that the person you don't want there has every reason to stay?" he said. "There's a conflict of objectives there.
"If you make it a condition that he has to go and that he'll go to the criminal court if he doesn't, in a sense you're forcing him.
"He has nowhere to go. You're keeping him there. That's the question we have to ask ourselves – was that the right thing to do?"
Meanwhile, the Libyan government has taken western journalists to Zlitan to inspect a site officials claim was a lung disease clinic which has been destroyed by a Nato airstrike.
Seven were killed and three remain trapped underneath the rubble, Libyan officials claimed. Nato denied it was responsible for any civilian deaths.