Zuma, centre, met Gaddafi last month, securing a deal that was later rejected by the rebels [Reuters]

A meeting of African Union (AU) leaders has opened in the South African capital, Pretoria, aimed at ending hostilities in battle-ravaged Libya.

Heads of states from the Republic of Congo, Mali, Mauritania and Uganda are attending the talks hosted by South African President Jacob Zuma.

The AU leaders are to discuss Zuma's mediation efforts between Muammar Gaddafi and rebels, who are fighting forces loyal to the Libyan leader in a bid to end his four-decades long rule.

Peter Greste, reporting for Al Jazeera from Pretoria, said the main topic on the agenda on Sunday is to adopt a series of political reforms to eliminate what they say are the causes of the clashes in Libya.

Other topics on the agenda are mechanisms for delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians trapped in the conflict and the protection of foreign nationals, including African migrant workers living in Libya.

Zuma met with Gaddafi last month, securing a deal with the Libyan leader that was later rejected by the 

'Ceasefire coming soon'

The rebels said on Sunday that they expect to receive an offer from Gaddafi "very soon" that could end the four-month war but insisted he must agree to step down.

The rebels said they were not in direct contact with Gaddafi officials but said they anticipated the offer would be delivered through South African and French intermediaries. 

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"We expect to get an offer very soon; he (Gaddafi) is unable to breathe," Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, vice chairman of the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC), told AFP news agency in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

"We want to preserve life, so we want to end the war as soon as possible," he added. "We have always left him some room for an exit."

Ghoga said the NTC understood through contacts with France and South Africa that an offer was being prepared by the authorities in Tripoli.

"These are the countries chosen by the Gaddafi regime to present a proposal to the National Transitional Council, but we have not received anything to date," he said.

"Any proposal that is brought to us, we will take a serious look at it so long as it guarantees that Gaddafi and his regime, his inner circle, do not remain in power."

Gaddafi is a long-time backer of the AU and a forceful advocate for stronger continental integration. He held the pan-African body's rotating chair in 2009 and has twice held talks with members of the panel.

African reservations

Many AU leaders, including Zuma, have voiced reservations over NATO's ongoing air campaign against Gaddafi forces.

The United Nations had sanctioned the air assault with a view to protect civilians from a security crackdown that the Libyan leader unleashed in response to the uprising against his rule.

Zuma's government, which currently holds a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, did vote in favour of the UN resolution, accusing Gaddafi of committing a "heinous violation of human rights against his own people" with his crackdown on the anti-government protests. 

But he has since been critical of NATO for pursuing regime change, straying far outside the resolution's civilian protection focus.

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Earlier this month, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who chairs the AU panel on Libya, told AFP news agency that Gaddafi "can no longer lead Libya," and that "his departure has become necessary".

But he and other African leaders have repeatedly called for a ceasefire and a diplomatic solution to the conflict, although they have so far failed to come up with a truce proposal that meets the rebels' and NATO's pre-condition that Gaddafi and his inner circle must leave power.

In recent days rumours have been rife that the Libyan leader may consider leaving Tripoli and that rebels could accept his internal exile to a remote location. But it remains to be seen if such a deal is just wishful thinking.

The rumours have been fuelled by a military deadlock on the ground and a steady trickle of defections from Gaddafi's forces.

The rebels said on Saturday that 38 Gaddafi officers - including six high-ranking officials - fled to Tunisia a day earlier.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies