African leaders in Benghazi for peace talks

African Union mediators arrive in rebel stronghold in a bid to negotiate a ceasefire between Gaddafi and opposition.

Benghazi - AU Leaders arrival
Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee says the rebels are very suspicious of the motives behind the African Union leaders’ visit

A delegation of five African presidents has arrived in the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi in a bid to end hostilities and negotiate a way out of the deepening crisis.

But their visit on Monday was met with scepticism as rebels said they would only agree to a ceasefire if Muammar Gaddafi’s forces were to be withdrawn from towns and streets, and freedom of expression was permitted across Libya.

Representing the African Union, the delegation, which met with Gaddafi on Sunday, had announced that he accepted a roadmap to peace, but refused to say whether the deal included his resignation–a key demand for rebels.

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Around 200 people waving Libyan rebel flags were gathered outside the airport when the high-level African Union delegation arrived, welcoming its efforts but demanding Gaddafi’s overthrow.

“The people must be allowed to go into the streets to express their opinion and the soldiers must return to their barracks,” Shamsiddin Abdulmolah, a spokesman for the rebels’ Transitional National Council, told the AFP news agency.

“If people are free to come out and demonstrate in Tripoli, then that’s it. I imagine all of Libya will be liberated within moments.”

He also demanded the release of hundreds of people who have gone missing since the outbreak of the popular uprising and are believed to be held by Gaddafi’s forces.

International reaction

The African Union’s plan has been given a cautious welcome in capitals around the world, with British foreign secretary William Hague stating that any ceasefire agreement must meet the terms of UN resolutions in full.

Franco Frattini, Italian foreign minister, said it was unlikely Gaddafi would respect any ceasefire, “after the horrific crimes enacted”.

And NATO’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said that any ceasefire must be “credible and verifiable”.

Jacob Zuma, the South African president, said Tripoli had “accepted” the African Union’s plan for a ceasefire which would halt a NATO bombing campaign that destroyed 26 loyalist tanks on Sunday alone.

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But the rebels doubt the Libyan leader would adhere to such a deal.

“The world has seen these offers of ceasefires before and within 15 minutes [Gaddafi] starts shooting again,” Abdulmolah said.

The rebels have said they would negotiate a political transition to democracy with certain senior regime figures but only on the condition that Gaddafi and his sons leave the country.

Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee, reporting from Benghazi, said there is “clearly a question over what people think the motivation of the AU visit is.”

People are asking whether it is a “genuine attempt at conflict resolution” or whether it is “an attempt by people who have close economic and political ties to Gaddafi to try and shore up the appearance of legitimacy,” he said,

The revolt against Gaddafi’s 41-year reign began as a wave of protests across the country in late February but soon escalated into a civil war after Gaddafi’s troops fired on demonstrators and the rebels seized several eastern towns.

The battle for Libya’s third largest city, Misurata,continues, as Gaddafi’s troops shell two neighbourhoods. The city has been the scene of fierce battles in recent weeks and has been largely closed off to reporters.

“Heavy and fierce fighting is now taking place at the eastern entrance to the city and in the centre … on Tripoli Street,” a resident named Abdelsalam told Reuters by telephone.

Recapturing Ajdabiya

The government’s troops have also pushed the rebels back on the eastern front, launching a major attack on the town of Ajdabiya on Saturday before being repelled by rebel forces.

Rebels reclaim Ajdabiya, a city that has borne the
brunt of the constantly shifting frontlines [Al Jazeera]

Libyans outside the airport echoed the rebels’ official demands, saying they appreciated the African Union’s efforts but wanted Gaddafi to step down.

“The main thing we want is for Gaddafi and his family to get out and to be judged … And we want the withdrawal of all troops from the towns,” Azza Hussein, a doctor waiting with the crowds outside the airport, said.

“Gaddafi is a big liar, so we are afraid if there is a ceasefire he won’t follow it,” Abdullah Barud, 17, another protester, said.

In the 1990s, Gaddafi oriented Libya away from the Arab world and towards the sub-Sahara, calling for a “United States of Africa”and cultivating close ties with a number of rulers and some rebel movements.

Libya has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism, telecommunications, banking and agriculture across several sub-Saharan countries via the Libya Africa Portfolio (LAP).

The rebels have accused Gaddafi of deploying African mercenariesagainst them – without providing much hard evidence – and have said they would be raising the subject with the delegation.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies