Libyan rebels reject African Union cease-fire proposal

BENGHAZI, Libya — Libyan rebels, backed forcefully by European leaders, rejected a cease-fire proposal by African mediators on Monday because it did not insist Moammar Gadhafi relinquish power.

BENGHAZI, Libya — Libyan rebels, backed forcefully by European leaders, rejected a cease-fire proposal by African mediators on Monday because it did not insist Moammar Gadhafi relinquish power. Despite an earlier announcement that the Libyan leader had accepted the truce, his forces shelled a key rebel-held city and killed six people, a doctor said.

“Col. Gadhafi and his sons must leave immediately if he wants to save himself,” said Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the rebels’ leadership council. “If not, the people are coming for him.”

Even as the African Union delegation arrived in the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi, crowds of protesters gathered to demonstrate their opposition to any dealmaking while Gadhafi remains in power. They said they had little faith in the visiting African Union mediators, most of them allies of Gadhafi. Three of the five African leaders who came preaching democracy for Libya seized power in coups.

Abdul-Jalil, a former justice minister who split with Gadhafi and leads the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council, said the proposal “did not respond to the aspirations of the Libyan people” and only involved political reforms.

“The initiative that was presented today, its time has passed,” said Abdul-Jalil. “We will not negotiate on the blood of our martyrs. We will die with them or be victorious.”

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini strongly backed the rebel demand for Gadhafi’s immediate departure and said he doubted anyway that the Libyan leader would have abided by the cease-fire after he broke more than one pledge before to halt violence. The AU sought a suspension of three weeks of international airstrikes on Gadhafi’s forces, that have prevented them from overpowering the vastly weaker rebel forces.

The secretary general of NATO, which took over control of the international air operation over Libya from the U.S., welcomed any efforts to resolve the conflict. He said it had become clear it would not be decided on the battlefield.

“There can be no solely military solution to the crisis in Libya,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.

Gadhafi’s forces, meanwhile, battered the rebel-held city of Misrata and its Mediterranean port with artillery fire, despite the African Union delegation’s assurance that Gadhafi had accepted their cease-fire plan at a meeting late Sunday in Tripoli. A doctor who lives in the city said the shelling began overnight and continued intermittently throughout the day Monday.

He said six people, one of them a 3-year-old girl, were killed by missiles that slammed into residential areas. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation if he was discovered by Gadhafi’s forces.

Weeks of fierce government bombardment of Misrata, the only major city in the western half of Libya that remains under partial rebel control, has terrorized its residents. Dozens have been killed and food and medical supplies are in short supply, according to residents, doctors and rights groups.

Wary of Gadhafi’s earlier broken cease-fire pledges, European officials supported the rebels’ refusal to negotiate until Gadhafi and his powerful sons and associates are gone.

“The sons and the family of Gadhafi cannot participate in the political future of Libya,” Frattini said on France’s Europe-1 radio. He said Gadhafi’s departure would have to happen “in parallel” with any cease-fire.

He said he was lobbying allies to arm the rebels but that he was against expanding the international operation to include ground forces. The rebels have far less equipment, training and troops than Gadhafi’s forces, and members of the international community have grown doubtful the opposition can overthrow Gadhafi even with air support.

Speaking in London later, Frattini said Gadhafi’s past crimes make it extremely difficult to imagine the Libyan leader will respect a cease-fire.

NATO is operating under a U.N. resolution authorizing a no-fly zone and airstrikes to protect Libyan civilians.

More than 1,000 protesters in Benghazi waved the pre-Gadhafi flags that have come to symbolize the rebel movement and chanted slogans against Gadhafi, whose more than 40-year rule has been threatened by the uprising that began nearly two months ago.

“I was born in the same year Gadhafi took power and I’ve never seen anything good from him. He is the biggest lie in the history of Libya,” said 42-year-old protester Jilal Tajouri. “All the people in Libya agree on this: Gadhafi and all his sons must leave Libya so we can have democracy.”

An Algerian member of the AU delegation had said there was discussion in the meeting with Gadhafi of the demands for his exit, but he refused to divulge details.

South African President Jacob Zuma led the group, whose other key participants were the leaders of Mali, Mauritania, Republic of Congo and Uganda.

NATO airstrikes on Sunday hit Gadhafi tanks, helping the rebels push back government troops who had been advancing toward Benghazi on an east-west highway along the country’s northern Mediterranean coast.

The airstrikes largely stopped heavy shelling by government forces of the eastern city of Ajdabiya — a critical gateway to Benghazi, the opposition’s de facto capital and Libya’s second largest city.

On Monday, rebels held positions at the western gates of the city, on the fringes of desert littered with bullet casings, scraps of metal and more than a dozen blackened or overturned vehicles, including tanks and pickup trucks outfitted with anti-aircraft guns.

The area was also scattered with twisted cooking pots, torn blankets and a shredded green helmet smeared with blood.

A rebel scout sent down the highway to the west said he encountered Gadhafi forces and was drawn into a brief gunbattle before falling back to Ajdabiya, but there were no major battles on that front Monday.

———

Associated Press writers Sebastian Abbot in Ajdabiya, Libya, Diaa Hadid in Cairo, Angela Charlton in Paris and Don Melvin in Brussels contributed to this report.

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