Libyan rebels delivered an emphatic "no" to an African Union proposal for an end to fighting in their country, insisting that Moammar Kadafi must step down from power as part of any diplomatic solution.
The opposition council's announcement after closed-door talks with an African Union delegation in Benghazi quashed hopes for an early end to the nearly 2-month-old conflict between Kadafi's forces and opposition fighters based in eastern Libya.
South African President Jacob Zuma said late Sunday after meeting with Kadafi in Tripoli, the capital, that the Libyan leader had endorsed the African Union's road map for peace. The proposal includes a cease-fire, the establishment of safe corridors for delivering humanitarian aid, and a dialogue on reforming Libya's political system, over which Kadafi has ruled for more than four decades.
Zuma's comments hinted at a possible diplomatic opening for ending Libya's stalemate, but the head of the opposition's political council, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, summarily dismissed the proposal after the talks.
"The African Union initiative does not include the departure of Kadafi and his sons from the Libyan political scene, therefore it is outdated," Abdul Jalil said in Benghazi, the rebels' de facto capital. "We will not negotiate on the blood of our martyrs. We will die with them or be victorious."
Abdul Jalil said the proposal had been around for more than a month. Rebels also said it was unacceptable because it did not call for Kadafi to withdraw his forces from besieged cities and did not allow protests, which is a key opposition demand.
Kadafi lost control of eastern Libya in February when anti-government demonstrations, inspired by the ouster of the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia, sparked a full-fledged revolt against the autocratic leader.
The eastern rebels were skeptical of the African Union even before the delegation arrived Monday morning. A crowd of more than 2,000 demonstrators greeted the party as it pulled up to the Tibesty Hotel, a dark, pyramid-shaped building in central Benghazi.
Members of the crowd waving rebel flags shouted slogans against Kadafi and made clear their distrust of the delegation, which included the leaders of Mali, Mauritania and the republic of Congo, along with representatives from South Africa, Uganda and Algeria.
Kadafi has long wooed neighboring African states with public-works projects and has hired Africans for his militias, which are now fighting the rebels.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization also greeted news of Kadafi's openness to a cease-fire with suspicion. Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at a Brussels news briefing that Kadafi's forces had demonstrated that they "did not keep their promises," Reuters news service reported.
A key Western ally agreed with the rebels. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told French radio Monday that no deal to end the crisis in Libya could include a future political role for Kadafi or his sons. "Kadafi's children, family cannot take part in the political future of Libya," Frattini said.
As Libya's former colonial ruler, Italy maintains strong economic connections to the country.
Zuma did not travel to Benghazi with the African Union negotiators. As the meeting ended, members of the delegation walked through the hotel hallways with grim faces. Rebel spokesman Abdelhafed Ghoga said the opposition had told the African Union representative that they had evidence of Arab and African fighters working for Kadafi, including some Algerian nationals.
Despite three weeks of Western airstrikes against Kadafi's forces, carried out with the stated goal of protecting civilians, there is no sign that the Libyan leader might fold any time soon. The bombing campaign has stopped his troops from marching on Benghazi but has not helped the opposition advance into western Libya.
Meanwhile, Kadafi's fighters continued to attack the rebel-held western coastal city of Misurata. On Monday, a doctor in the enclave said government fighters had been shelling the city continuously since the early morning.
Among the seven people killed in fighting Monday was a 3-year-old girl, Sakina Mostafa, whose parents brought her body to one of the makeshift field hospitals in the city. Many more were wounded, said the doctor, who asked that his name not be published for security reasons.
"Nobody is supporting civilians but everybody is saying they are supporting civilians," said the doctor. "We don't know how the people promising to help us are helping us."
Parker reported from Benghazi and Daragahi from Houmt Souk.