South African President Jacob Zuma said Sunday that Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi had accepted a "road map" for ending the conflict that pits his forces against rebels determined to end his four-decade rule.
Zuma, who according to news reports led a delegation of African Union leaders in a meeting with Kadafi at his compound in Tripoli, did not disclose details of the cease-fire proposal. He also didn't specify whether Kadafi himself or his adjutants had accepted the African Union plan.
The road map calls for making it easier to get humanitarian supplies to besieged areas and starting a dialogue between the rebels and Kadafi's regime, the Associated Press reported.
Zuma said the delegation, which plans to meet the rebel leadership Monday in Benghazi, had completed its mission with Kadafi. He called on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to halt its airstrikes against the Tripoli regime's forces.
"The Brother Leader's delegation has accepted the road map as presented by us," Zuma said, according to the Associated Press.
Libyan state television did not report that the Kadafi government had agreed to an African Union proposal.
Rebel leaders have demanded that Kadafi relinquish power and made it clear they will not accept the strongman, his relatives or close associates remaining in charge of the country. A Kadafi government spokesman this month rejected the opposition's offer of a cease-fire, which calls for the government to withdraw forces from besieged cities and allow peaceful protests.
Zuma's statements came hours after NATO airstrikes pounded Kadafi forces fighting rebels for control of Ajdabiya, a strategic city less that two hours from the rebels' de facto capital, Benghazi. A day earlier, Kadafi forces had burst into the city and raked it with gunfire in a direct assault that raised the specter of a rebel collapse.
The battle underscored how much the rebels need Western fighter planes to hold Kadafi's army and paramilitary units back. Since the United Nations Security Council authorized NATO's mission to protect civilians three weeks ago, Kadafi's fighters have been able to seize rebel strongholds in the absence of Western bombing strikes.
In Ajdabiya, rebels covered the charred bodies of Kadafi's fighters with blankets, as smoke and flames licked the dozen crushed pickup trucks in the aftermath of NATO's airstrikes.
Down the road, a graying man wearing a red prayer cap shouted "God is great!" and gripped a loud speaker and a black revolver as the rebels' white trucks, with heavy machine guns mounted on their flatbeds, once more sped off into the desert after nearly two days of fighting.
"Kadafi's forces had more cohesiveness and adaptability than the French, British, and U.S. planners and policy figures that led NATO into the fighting calculated," said Anthony Cordesman, a defense expert with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The end result is what is now a war of political attrition where Kadafi's forces will win as long as NATO air power remains ... limited by the fear of civilian casualties."
Limited by a U.N. mandate that calls exclusively for protecting civilians and not toppling Kadafi, NATO cannot just attack the Libyan leader's fighters the way it did Serbian forces during the 1999 Kosovo crisis or send in small teams to pair with the rebels and aggressively call in airstrikes against Kadafi's men. As a result, NATO keeps rebel fighters at arm's length, creating an opportunity for Kadafi's fighters to advance unless the Western alliance chooses to intervene.
Rebel soldiers and militiamen, after pushing Kadafi's fighters out of Ajdabiya on Sunday, described their improvised communications with NATO. Soldiers and militiamen said they called commanders and politicians in Benghazi, who relayed their intelligence to NATO to coordinate airstrikes. Whether the fighters were able to stay out of harm's way depended on whether their contacts phoned them back with news of the bombing.
In the last week, NATO planes have killed 17 rebel fighters in two incidents.
The head of an army brigade in Ajdabiya, Col. Mohammed Khofair, said he had been charged a week ago with phoning in Kadafi fighter positions to the opposition's military command. The rebels' military operation room then informs NATO, Khofair said.
Informal volunteer militias also call in the Kadafi fighters' positions to Benghazi, he said. Khofair bragged that the fighting had gone well Sunday, and made it clear the rebels understood they needed to isolate Kadafi's fighters from civilians if they wanted NATO's help.
"We had pushed Kadafi's forces out of the city, so they were an easy target," he said.
Rebel fighter Abdul Salam Jitlaw, accompanied by two friends in T-shirts and sunglasses with AK-47s propped between their legs, said they wanted to go after Kadafi's fighters in their machine gun-equipped pickup truck, but thought better of it.
"We are frightened NATO will hit us," he said.
Parker reported from Ajdabiya and Daragahi from Houmt Souk.