An African bid to halt Libya's civil war collapsed within hours on Monday, after Muammar Gaddafi's forces shelled a besieged city and rebels said there could be no deal unless he was toppled.
The rebel rejection came less than 24 hours after South African President Jacob Zuma, head of an African Union mission, said Gaddafi had accepted the plan, including a ceasefire proposal for the conflict in the North African desert state.
As African presidents negotiated with the rebel leadership in their stronghold of Benghazi, insurgents said Gaddafi's forces had bombarded the besieged western city of Misrata. Rebels there scorned reports Gaddafi had accepted a ceasefire, saying they were fighting intense house-to-house battles with his forces, who fired rockets into the city.
Western leaders also rejected any deal that did not include Gaddafi's removal, and Nato refused to suspend its bombing of his forces unless there was a credible ceasefire.
Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a Brussels news briefing that Gaddafi's government had announced ceasefires in the past, but “they did not keep their promises”.
Rebel leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil told a news conference after the talks in Benghazi: “The African Union initiative does not include the departure of Gaddafi and his sons from the Libyan political scene, therefore it is outdated.”
“Any future proposal that does not include this, we cannot accept,” he said, accusing Gaddafi of bombing, shelling and shooting civilians.
Gaddafi's most prominent son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, said it was “ridiculous” to imagine his father stepping down.
“We want new blood, that's what we want for Libya's future. But to talk of (Gaddafi) leaving, that's truly ridiculous,” he told French news channel BFM TV.
“If the West wants democracy, a new constitution, elections, well we agree. We agree on this point but the West must help us to provide a propitious climate. But all these bombings, this support given to rebel groups, all that is counter-productive.”
Nato said its air strikes against government armour would press on as long as Gaddafi targeted civilians.
Libyan television said the “colonial and crusader aggressors” hit military and civilian sites in Al Jufrah district in central Libya on Monday.
A resident of the coastal city of Misrata, under siege for six weeks, told Reuters there was heavy fighting on the eastern approaches and in the centre.
Rebels told Reuters Gaddafi's forces had intensified the assault, for the first time firing truck-mounted, Russian-made Grad rockets into the city, where conditions for civilians are said to be desperate.
Earlier, Al Jazeera television quoted a rebel spokesman as saying five people died and 20 were wounded in Misrata, a lone rebel bastion in western Libya.
Zuma did not travel from Tripoli to Benghazi with other AU delegates, to the rebels' surprise, but issued a statement when he got home saying the mission had been “a huge success”.
Libyan officials have repeatedly said Gaddafi, who holds no official state position, will not quit.
The AU delegation was met in Benghazi by up to 3 000 demonstrators holding banners reading:
“African Union take Gaddafi with you” and “Gaddafi has committed genocide”.
They pushed up to the doors of the hotel where the talks were held, yelling “the people want the downfall of the regime”.
Human Rights Watch accused Gaddafi's forces of indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Misrata which violated international law. It said about 250 people had died.
The African Union does not have a good track record in brokering peace deals, having failed recently to end conflicts or disputes in Somalia, Madagascar and Ivory Coast.
At the front outside the eastern rebel-held town of Ajdabiyah, rebels buried the charred bodies of Gaddafi troops killed in air strikes and said they were advancing westwards.
But there were only light skirmishes on Monday on the contested road to the oil port of Brega, 70km further west, in contrast to Sunday's heavy fighting in Ajdabiyah when rebels repelled a government assault. - Reuters