African Union says Khadafy OK’s cease-fire
Rebels to review proposal
TRIPOLI, Libya — A delegation of African leaders said Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy has accepted their plan for a cease-fire with rebels, who will be given the proposal today.
The leaders met with Khadafy’s representatives yesterday, hours after NATO airstrikes battered Libyan tanks and artillery, helping the rebels push back government troops who had been advancing quickly toward the opposition’s eastern stronghold.
A rebel battlefield commander said four NATO airstrikes yesterday largely stopped heavy shelling by government forces of the eastern city of Ajdabiya, a crucial gateway to the opposition’s de facto capital of Benghazi.
The African Union’s road map calls for an immediate cease-fire, cooperation in opening channels for humanitarian aid, and the start of a dialogue between the rebels and the government. Union officials, however, made no mention of any requirement for Khadafy to pull his troops out of cities, as rebels have demanded.
“We have completed our mission with the brother leader, and the brother leader’s delegation has accepted the road map as presented by us,’’ said South African President Jacob Zuma. He traveled to Tripoli with the heads of Mali and Mauritania to meet with Khadafy, whose more than 40-year rule has been threatened by the uprising that began nearly two months ago.
“We will be proceeding tomorrow to meet the other party to talk to everybody and present a political solution,’’ Zuma said at Khadafy’s Tripoli compound.
He called on NATO to end airstrikes to “give the cease-fire a chance.’’
Khadafy has ignored the cease-fire he announced after international airstrikes were authorized last month, and he rejects demands from the rebels, the United States, and its European allies that he relinquish power immediately.
The Libyan leader enjoys substantial support from countries of the African Union, an organization that he chaired two years ago and helped transform using Libya’s oil wealth. So it is not clear whether rebels would accept the union as a fair broker.
Though the African Union has condemned attacks on civilians, last week its leader, Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, decried foreign intervention in Libya’s nearly two-month-old uprising, which he declared to be an internal problem.
Though the rebels have improved discipline and organization, they remain a far less powerful force than Khadafy’s troops. Members of the international community have grown doubtful that the opposition can overthrow Khadafy even with air support, and some are weighing options such as arming the fighters even while attempting diplomatic solutions.
The leader of NATO’s military operation in Libya said yesterday’s airstrikes destroyed 11 tanks near Ajdabiya and another 14 near Misurata, the only city that rebels still hold in the western half of Libya.
Another four tanks were destroyed about 25 miles southwest of Ajdabiya.
NATO is operating under a UN resolution authorizing a no-fly zone and airstrikes to protect Libyan civilians.
The fighting in Ajdabiya yesterday killed 23 people, 20 of them pro-Khadafy forces, said Mohammed Idris, the supervisor of a hospital in the city. A total of 38 people were killed in fighting over the weekend, including 11 rebels and seven civilians, Idris said.
The main front line in Libya’s uprising runs along a 600-mile coastal highway from Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, to Tripoli, the capital, where Khadafy’s power is concentrated. Rebels have been pushed back on two previous advances toward Tripoli, both times as they approached the heavily fortified government stronghold of Surt.
Over the past few days, Khadafy’s forces have been knocking the rebels back eastward, in their most sustained offensive since international airstrikes drove them back last month. If they had taken Ajdabiya, they would have had a clear path to opposition territory including Benghazi, about 100 miles away along the coast.
If Khadafy “controls Ajdabiya, he makes us feel like we are unsafe because he can move anywhere in the east,’’ said Colonel Hamid Hassy, the rebel battlefield commander.
Western airstrikes, initially conducted under US leadership, began on March 19 to repel Khadafy forces just as they were at the doorstep of Benghazi.
Hassy said Khadafy’s forces fled the western gate of Ajdabiya yesterday and by mid-afternoon had been pushed back about 40 miles west of the city.
However, sporadic shelling could still be heard around western Ajdabiya late in the afternoon.
Rebels had been growing critical of NATO, which accidentally hit opposition fighters in deadly airstrikes twice this month. They have complained that the alliance was too slow and imprecise, but Hassy said it is getting better.
“To tell you the truth, at first NATO was paralyzed but now they have better movement and are improving,’’ he said.
The commander of the NATO operation, Canadian Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, stressed in a NATO statement that the point of the airstrikes was to protect civilians, not to work hand-in-hand with the rebels.
“The situation in Ajdabiya, and Misurata in particular, is desperate for those Libyans who are being brutally shelled by the regime,’’ Bouchard said. “To help protect these civilians, we continued to strike these forces hard.’’
NATO noted that it is enforcing the no-fly zone on both sides, having intercepted a rebel MiG-23 fighter jet that it forced back to the airport Saturday.
In the embattled city of Misurata, the lone rebel outpost in the west of the country, residents said shelling continued yesterday, killing one and wounding two others seriously.
Libya’s third-largest city has been pounded without cease for more than a month by Khadafy’s heavy weapons, but the rebels have managed to hold out.
Khaled Kaim, Libya’s deputy foreign minister, claimed that government forces shot down two US-built Chinook helicopters being used by rebel forces. Kaim said the helicopters were shot down near the eastern oil facilities of Brega — a key objective of rebels — and accused NATO commanders of a double standard to allow rebel forces to operate aircraft in “clear violation’’ of the UN-backed no-fly zone over the country.
“We have a question for the allied forces: Is this resolution made for the Libyan government only or everyone in Libya?’’ he said.
The report could not be confirmed with the rebels, but journalists in the area did describe seeing at least one helicopter apparently fighting for the rebels in the area Saturday, though it lacked the distinctive double-rotor design of the Chinook and appeared to be a Russian-built model.