TRIPOLI, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi insists he will not leave his country, South Africa’s president said Tuesday after he met the embattled Libyan ruler.
Gadhafi’s departure is the key demand of rebel forces battling his troops. On Tuesday, Italy’s foreign minister pledged to provide Libya’s rebels with fuel and hundreds of millions of dollars backed by frozen assets of Gadhafi’s regime. Franco Frattini spoke during a visit to the de facto rebel capital, Benghazi.
The hard lines of the two sides and the competing, high-level visits illustrated the virtual stalemate in the conflict. NATO aircraft bomb the Libyan capital night after night, and military forces from the two sides battle, but little is changing on the ground.
South Africa is concerned for Gadhafi’s safety, according to the statement released by President Jacob Zuma’s office Tuesday, after he returned home from his talks with Gadhafi in Tripoli — a rare visit by a high-level world figure.
Zuma was pressing to revive an African Union proposal for a cease-fire and dialogue to settle the Libya conflict, and Gadhafi agreed, the statement said, “Col. Gadhafi called for an end to the bombings to enable a Libyan dialogue,” it said. “He emphasized that he was not prepared to leave his country, despite the difficulties.”
Zuma called for a halt to NATO airstrikes as part of the cease-fire. After initially backing NATO’s involvement, Zuma and the African Union called for a cessation, charging that NATO had overstepped its U.N. mandate to protect civilians.
NATO aircraft blasted five tank transporters near the western coastal town of Zlitan on Monday, British military spokesman Maj. Gen. John Lorimer said in a statement. The town is between Tripoli and the rebel-held city of Misrata. Several airstrikes were heard in Tripoli after nightfall.
Through the statement, the African Union appealed for recognition of its role in finding a formula, adding, “Nothing other than a dialogue among all parties in Libya can bring about a lasting solution.” The African body’s image has deteriorated in recent years because of its inability to resolve conflicts on the continent.
Rebel leaders immediately turned down the African initiative because of Gadhafi’s refusal to relinquish power.
Gadhafi’s future is the main point of contention. The rebels say the conflict can only be resolved by his removal from power.
In response, Libya’s government spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, told reporters in Tripoli Tuesday that Gadhafi’s ouster would lead to civil war. “If Gadhafi disappears for any reason, the safety valve will have been released,” he said.
Defections from the Gadhafi regime appear to be speeding up. Thirteen servicemen loyal to Gadhafi, including a colonel and four commanders, have fled to neighbouring Tunisia, the official Tunisian news agency said. It was the second group of military men to defect to Tunisia this week.
The latest group arrived Sunday in the port of Ketf in southern Tunisia, the news agency TAP said Tuesday.
On Friday, a group of 22, including a colonel and ranking officers, arrived in two boats at the same port from the rebel-held Libyan city of Misrata.
On Monday, eight top Libyan army officers, five of them generals, made an appeal in Rome to fellow officers to join the revolt.
Effects of more than three months of fighting are being felt all over. Shortages plague the western part of the country under Gadhafi’s control, where miles-long lines wait at gas stations, and basic supplies, even some food items, can be hard to find.
On the rebel side where most of Libya’s oil fields are located, oil exports have been halted after fighting and shelling around the wells, plunging the National Transitional Council into a financial crisis.
Frattini offered to correct that. He said Italy would provide “for the needs of the Libyan people with a huge quantity of fuel and huge amount of money.”
He did not provide an exact figure but said the assistance would amount to “hundreds of millions of euros (dollars) that are necessary for the daily life of the population.”
“The Libyan nation is not a poor nation, it has its resources. But during this difficult period of time, the financial needs are extreme, and the Italian government has come in to give us the necessary financial support for our development,” said Ali al-Essawy, a senior rebel official.
Italy, the former colonial power in Libya, was the third country, after France and Qatar, to give diplomatic recognition to the rebel council. Rome has also dispatched military advisers to help train the rebel military and sent doctors to help organize hospitals and medical efforts.
Frattini vowed Italy would continue such support and repeated his demand that Gadhafi step down.
“Gadhafi’s regime is over. He has to leave power, he has to leave the country,” he said.
Additional reporting by Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas and Michelle Faul in Benghazi, Libya and Edith M. Lederer at the U.N.