BENGHAZI, Libya: Libyan rebels, backed forcefully by European leaders, rejected a cease-fire proposal by African mediators on Monday because it did not insist that Muammar Qaddafi relinquish power.
A day after an announcement that the Libyan leader had accepted the truce, a doctor in rebel-held Misrata said Qaddafi’s forces battered that western city and its Mediterranean port with artillery fire that killed six people.
“He is the biggest lie in the history of Libya,” said Jilal Tajouri, 42, who joined more than 1,000 flag-waving protesters in the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi as the African Union delegation arrived.
“All the people in Libya agree on this: Qaddafi and all his sons must leave Libya so we can have democracy,” Tajouri said, echoing the opposition of other demonstrators to any dealmaking while Qaddafi remains in power.
The rebels’ leadership council agreed.
“Col. Qaddafi and his sons must leave immediately if he wants to save himself. “If not, the people are coming for him,” said Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, a former justice minister who split with Qaddafi and heads the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council.
Abdul-Jalil said the African Union proposal “did not respond to the aspirations of the Libyan people” and involved only political reforms.
“The initiative that was presented today, its time has passed,” he said. “We will not negotiate on the blood of our martyrs. We will die with them or be victorious.” In their talks with the African Union delegation, the rebels raised the issue of Qaddafi’s reliance on foreign mercenaries from other African and Arab nations, particularly Algeria, said Abdul-Jalil, without elaborating.
The protesters in Benghazi said they had little faith in the visiting African Union mediators, most of them allies of Qaddafi. Three of the five African leaders who came preaching democracy for Libya seized power in coups.
South African President Jacob Zuma led the group, whose other key participants were the leaders of Mali, Mauritania, Republic of Congo and Uganda.
An Algerian member of the AU delegation had said there was discussion in the meeting with Qaddafi of the demands for his exit, but he refused to divulge details.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini strongly backed the rebel demand for Qaddafi’s immediate departure and said he doubted that the Libyan leader would have abided by the cease-fire after breaking more than one previous pledge to halt violence. The AU sought a suspension of three weeks of international airstrikes that have prevented Qaddafi’s forces from overpowering the vastly weaker rebel forces.
Nevertheless, the secretary general of NATO, which took over control of the international air operation from the US, welcomed any efforts to resolve the conflict. He said it had become clear it would not be decided on the battlefield.
“There can be no solely military solution to the crisis in Libya,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
Qaddafi’s forces, meanwhile, shelled Misrata despite the African Union delegation’s assurance that Qaddafi had accepted their cease-fire plan at a meeting late Sunday in Tripoli. A doctor who lives in the city said the shelling began overnight and continued intermittently throughout the day Monday.
He said six people, one of them a 3-year-old girl, were killed by missiles that slammed into residential areas. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation if he was discovered by Qaddafi’s forces.
Weeks of fierce government bombardment of Misrata, the only major city in the western half of Libya that remains under partial rebel control, have terrorized its residents.
Dozens have been killed and food and medical supplies are scarce, according to residents, doctors and rights groups.
Wary of Qaddafi’s earlier broken cease-fire pledges, European officials supported the rebels’ refusal to negotiate until Qaddafi and his powerful sons and associates are gone.
“The sons and the family of Qaddafi cannot participate in the political future of Libya,” Frattini said on France’s Europe-1 radio. He said Qaddafi’s departure would have to happen “in parallel” with any cease-fire.
He said he was lobbying allies to arm the rebels but that he was against expanding the international operation to include ground forces. The rebels have far less equipment, training and troops than Qaddafi’s forces, and members of the international community have grown doubtful the opposition can overthrow Qaddafi even with air support.
NATO is operating under a UN resolution authorizing a no-fly zone and airstrikes to protect Libyan civilians.
NATO airstrikes on Sunday hit Qaddafi tanks, helping the rebels push back government troops who had been advancing toward Benghazi on an east-west highway along the country’s northern Mediterranean coast.
The airstrikes largely stopped heavy shelling by government forces of the eastern city of Ajdabiya — a critical gateway to Benghazi, the opposition’s de facto capital and Libya’s second largest city.
On Monday, rebels held positions at the western gates of the city, on the fringes of desert littered with bullet casings, scraps of metal and more than a dozen blackened or overturned vehicles, including tanks and pickup trucks outfitted with anti-aircraft guns.
The area was also scattered with twisted cooking pots, torn blankets and a shredded green helmet smeared with blood.
A rebel scout sent down the highway to the west said he encountered Qaddafi forces and was drawn into a brief gunbattle before falling back to Ajdabiya, but there were no major battles on that front Monday.