The opposition battling forces loyal to Libyan strongman Muammar Qadhafi has responded tepidly to a ceasefire deal proposed by the African Union (A.U).
After securing Mr. Qadhafi's approval in Tripoli, the visiting A.U. panel, minus President Jacob Zuma, its South African head, arrived on Monday in Benghazi, on the second leg of its peace-making mission.
Ahead of the talks, opposition spokesman Mustafa Gheriani said the A.U.'s proposals would be considered, but Mr. Qadhafi's political exit would be necessary for a fruitful dialogue to commence. “The Libyan people have made it very clear that Qadhafi must step down, but we will consider the proposal once we have more details, and respond,” he said.
On their part, Libyan officials citing a bare technicality, have rejected the demand for their leader's removal, saying Mr. Qadhafi does not hold any official position in government from where he can quit.
In Tripoli, Mr. Qadhafi had apparently agreed to the broad principles of a ceasefire deal, which revolved around an immediate cessation of hostilities, effective monitoring of the ceasefire, and the delivery of humanitarian aid and protection of foreigners.
The presence of around 2000 protesters who were at Benghazi airport when the visiting delegation arrived imparted a negative tenor to the upcoming talks. Many demonstrators held aloft banners, one of which read: “African Union take Qadhafi with you.” Another alleged that the Libyan strongman had “committed genocide”.
Al Jazeera quoted Shamsiddin Abdulmolah, spokesman of the opposition Transitional National Council (TNC), as saying it was impossible to trust Mr. Qadhafi because of his history of ceasefire violations. “The world has seen these offers of ceasefires before and within 15 minutes [Mr. Qadhafi] starts shooting again,” he observed. In Tripoli, A.U. Commissioner for peace and security Ramtane Lamamra said he was cautiously optimistic that talks with the Libyan opposition would not stall.
“We believe what we have proposed is broad enough to launch negotiations ... What we need is for them to accept that we are people of good will.”
But in a snub to the A.U.'s peace overtures, NATO has sharply increased air strikes against regime targets. Riding on an escalation of NATO air strikes that have targeted the heavy weapons of Qadhafi loyalists, the opposition forces have made significant headway in the embattled town of Ajdabiyah. Dissident forces were now in control of all the gates to Ajdabiyah, where a see-saw battle is being fought for weeks. In the opposition held Misuarata, renewed shelling by regime forces has killed five opposition volunteers, and wounded 20.
An unnamed NATO official told Reuters that the alliance had no intention of curbing air strikes.
“We will continue to put pressure on forces threatening civilians and our operations will continue,” the official said. “Our aircraft are still flying and when we see a threat to civilians, we will engage.”