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Wounded rebels are evacuated during a battle on the roaf between Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, eastern Libya.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Libya's rebels cannot forgive their dictator. After a flurry of rumours, leaks and lukewarm statements about letting Moammar Gadhafi slip away into history, giving the strongman sufficient money and guarantees to leave in comfort, the revolutionary council in Benghazi firmly stamped out all talk of a peace deal on Tuesday.

The onslaught of Colonel Gadhafi's tanks and bombers could not have put the revolutionaries in any mood for negotiations. The regime hammered rebel positions in places not accessible to journalists, cutting phone lines and arresting reporters to stem the flow of grim news from cities such as Zawiyah, about 50 kilometres west of Tripoli.

No reliable estimates of the dead emerged from those towns. In eastern Libya, where correspondents are following the rebels' slow progress along a coastal road, another day of air strikes and rocket volleys filled local hospitals with 26 wounded.

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Late Tuesday, the embattled Col. Gadhafi turned up at a Tripoli hotel where many foreign journalists are staying, clenching his fists in the air in a show of defiance. Accompanied by one of his female bodyguards, he did not immediately respond to questions as he strolled through the lobby.

Earlier in the day, the exhausted rebels reacted with a mix of hope and disbelief when word spread that the Libyan strongman might finally quit. The rumours started in earnest when Jadallah Azous Al-Talhi, a former prime minister, appeared on state television to appeal for a peaceful settlement.

"Give a chance to national dialogue to resolve this crisis, to help stop the bloodshed, and not give a chance to foreigners to come and capture our country again," Mr. Al-Talhi said, addressing his words directly to the "elders" in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

This marked a departure from the regime's intransigence of recent weeks, when it promised no quarter to the rebels. Within hours, the chairman of Benghazi's revolutionary council, former justice minister Mustafa Abdel Jalil, was telling Arabic-language television networks that the rebels would be willing to accept a three-point solution.

"From the state TV controlled by the regime, we heard there is a call directed to the wise men in the country to reach a solution in order to put an end to the bloodshed," Mr. Jalil told Al-Jazeera. "We propose a solution can be reached."

First, he demanded a halt to combat operations. Second, he asked for Col. Gadhafi's departure from the country within 72 hours. In return, he suggested that the rebels might be willing to waive their rights to prosecute him within Libya.

Mr. Jalil added that it's not within his jurisdiction to offer guarantees about international war crimes prosecutions. Later in the day, other rebel leaders suggested that the chairman had overstepped his authority altogether. They said he had issued his ultimatum without the approval of the rest of the 30-member council, whose members represent many of the towns and cities opposing the regime.

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By the time a council spokesman faced a packed auditorium of journalists in Benghazi in the afternoon, it appeared the 72-hour departure offer was off the table.

"What are we going to negotiate with him, after all the destruction and killings?" said Abdel Hafez Ghoga, deputy head of the council and its official media liaison.

Perhaps the only point on which the rebels agree with the regime in Tripoli is that no direct talks have occurred between Col. Gadhafi's camp and the rebellious east in recent days. Nor did the rebel spokesman seem optimistic that the young men fighting toward Tripoli would be willing to offer terms to their enemy.

"The people who died, their families would have their rights in court against Gadhafi," Mr. Ghoga said.

Part of the rebels' discomfort with the notion of peace talks appears to stem from their view of themselves. They still describe the conflict in Libya as an uprising, not a civil war.

"Our slogan is the downfall of the oppressor regime," Mr. Ghoga said. "When the regime confronted us with live ammunition, it was only natural for the youth to defend themselves. We still consider our revolution a peaceful revolution, and you can see that the youth are only defending themselves."

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With a report from Agence France-Presse

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