An African plan to halt Libya’s civil war quickly foundered today when fighting raged for the besieged city of Misrata and NATO refused to suspend its air campaign. South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, leading a delegation of five African presidents, announced early in the day that Muammar Gaddafi had accepted the initiative, including a ceasefire, but it looked dead in the water a few hours later as Gaddafi’s forces bombarded Misrata.
Western leaders expressed scepticism and said Gaddafi must step down, while NATO said its air strikes against government armour would continue as long as he targeted civilians. A resident of the coastal city of Misrata, which has been under siege for six weeks, told Reuters heavy fighting was under way on the eastern approaches and in the centre. Rebels in Misrata told Reuters Gaddafi’s forces fired Russian-made Grad rockets into the city, where conditions for civilians are said to be desperate.
Earlier Al Jazeera television quoted a rebel spokesman as saying five people died and 20 were wounded in Misrata, a lone rebel bastion in western Libya. The African Union delegation held talks with the rebel leadership on Monday in the opposition’s Benghazi stronghold but the insurgents said they would accept no plan that allowed Gaddafi to stay in power.
Zuma did not travel from Tripoli to Benghazi with the rest of the delegation, to the surprise of the rebels, but issued a statement when he got home saying the mission was “a huge success”. A rebel spokesman said Gaddafi must end his 41-year rule. “The Libyan people have made it very clear that Gaddafi must step down, but we will consider the proposal once we have more details, and respond,” spokesman Mustafa Gheriani told Reuters.
Libyan officials have repeatedly said that Gaddafi, who holds no official state position, will not quit. The AU delegation was met in Benghazi by up to 3,000 demonstrators holding banners reading: “African Union take Gaddafi with you” and “Gaddafi has committed genocide”. They pushed up to the doors of the hotel where the talks were held, yelling “the people want the downfall of the regime”.
Officials from NATO, which is bombing Libyan government armour under a United Nations mandate to protect civilians, said they took note of the African Union plan but the alliance would continue operations while civilians were at risk. “It does not appear that this indication of a peace deal has any substance at this point,” said one NATO official in reference to the shelling of Misrata.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said any ceasefire must be credible and verifiable and include the end of all attacks against civilians. Human Rights Watch accused Gaddafi’s forces of indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Misrata which violated international law. It said about 250 people had died.
The African Union does not have a good track record in brokering peace deals, having failed recently to end conflicts or disputes in Somalia, Madagascar and Ivory Coast. At the front outside the eastern rebel-held town of Ajdabiyah, rebels buried the charred bodies of Gaddafi troops killed in air strikes and said they were advancing westwards.
NATO stepped up attacks on Gaddafi’s armour over the weekend, destroying 25 tanks around Misrata and Ajdabiyah after rebels accused them of acting too slowly. An AU statement after the Tripoli talks spoke of a transition but made no mention of Gaddafi’s future. Asked if the issue of him stepping aside was discussed, Ramtane Lamamra, AU Commissioner for Peace and Security, told reporters: “There was some discussion.” However he added: “I cannot report on confidential discussions because first of all I was not part of them.”
The AU proposal included an immediate cessation of hostilities, effective monitoring of the ceasefire, the delivery of humanitarian aid and the protection of foreigners. The rebels have previously rejected a negotiated outcome to what has become the bloodiest in a series of pro-democracy revolts across the Arab world that have ousted the autocratic leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.
The NATO attacks outside Ajdabiyah on Sunday helped break the biggest assault by Gaddafi’s forces on the eastern front for at least a week. The town is the gateway to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi 150 km (90 miles) north up the Mediterranean coast. On Monday upbeat rebels were putting burned and mangled bodies into blankets by blackened government vehicles outside Ajdabiyah and dragging them into the desert for burial.
“We have been able to advance because of the air strikes,” said rebel Belgassim El-Awami. It was not clear how far west the rebels had moved along a front which has swung back and forth for more than a week in a fight for the oil port of Brega. Opposition fighters have been overwhelmed by Gaddafi’s firepower in western Libya, close to his base of Tripoli, but are increasingly using guerrilla tactics to weaken his hold.
Tripoli residents said there had been several attacks on army checkpoints and a police station in the last week and gunfire can be heard at night.