A key Western government and Libyan rebels on Monday reacted coolly to an African Union "road map" for peace between forces loyal and opposed to Moammar Kadafi because it did not include provisions for the removal of the longtime ruler and his family.
Meanwhile, rebels aided by North Atlantic Treaty Organization airstrikes appear to have fended off a weekend military advance on the strategic city of Ajdabiya amid heavy fighting and casualties.
A small demonstration broke out against the truce proposal in the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi, while various spokesmen for the transitional rebel government rejected the offer, several news agencies reported. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told French radio that that no deal could include a future political role for Kadafi or his sons.
South African President Jacob Zuma and a delegation of African leaders announced late Sunday that Kadafi had accepted the proposal for ending a two-month conflict that pits his forces against rebels determined to end his four-decade rule.
Zuma called on NATO to halt 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.
But Zuma didn't specify whether Kadafi himself or his adjutants had accepted the African Union plan. Kadafi, his sons and their various entourages often publicly contradict each other in specifying positions of the regime. Kadafi and his deputies have repeatedly agreed publicly to abide by international demands to halt attacks on civilians while continuing to pummel rebel-held residential areas with artillery and tank fire.
According to a press release distributed Monday, the proposal "revolves around" the immediate cessation of hostilities, the launch of a transition period and a dialogue on political reform "with due consideration for the legitimate aspirations of the Libyan people for democracy, political reform, justice peace and security as well as socio-economic development. "
The road map also calls for establishment of humanitarian corridors for besieged civilians and protection of foreign nationals, according to the release. The delegation is to meet Monday with the rebel leadership in Benghazi, though Zuma did not travel to the rebel-held areas.
Rebel leaders have demanded that Kadafi relinquish power and made it clear they will not accept his relatives or close associates remaining in charge. 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 back Kadafi's army and paramilitary units. Since the U.N. 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.
In Ajdabiya, rebels covered the charred bodies of Kadafi's fighters with blankets, as smoke and flames licked a 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 loudspeaker 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.
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 a 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.
Parker reported from Ajdabiya and Daragahi from Houmt Souk.