Tripoli, Apr 10 : African Union mediators tonight met Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in an effort to negotiate a ceasefire, even as forces loyal to him pounded the town of Ajdabiya amid pitched battles with the rebels for the control of the gateway to the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.
Presidents Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania, Mali's Amadou Toumani Toure, Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo, Jacob Zuma of South Africa, and Ugandan Foreign Minister Henry Oryem Okello, representing Yoweri Museveni, the fifth head of state in the AU panel, flew in to Mitiga airport near Tripoli.
The AU leaders met Gaddafi at his Bedouin tent in his Bab al-Aziziya compound in the capital after which they were taken by minibus to greet a crowd of the Libyan leader's supporters some 200 metres from the tent, before driving off to an undisclosed destination. They would later fly to Benghazi.
Meanwhile, in the most sustained offensive since being driven back by international air strikes last month, pro-Gaddafi troops shelled rebel positions in Ajdabiya as fierce battle for a second day after pushing back the rebels from the oil town of Brega.
The rebels had been outflanked by pro-Gaddafi forces and forced back from their advance on Brega, 80-km west of Ajdabiya.
“We're seeing plumes of smoke and constant shelling ... There are pockets of Gaddafi's forces in the city,” Al Jazeera said, adding that patients in a hospital appeared to have been shot by sniper fire.
“Reliable military sources told us that Gaddafi's forces managed to advance overnight from the southern desert and started shelling from that area,” it reported.
“We are also told that there is street fighting going on inside Ajdabiya between rebels and Gaddafi loyalists. This is a very serious development because there is now fighting on two fronts - around Ajdabiya and around Brega,” the Arab channel said.
Media reports said at least 12 rebels were killed in the fighting in and around crossroads of Ajdabiya over the weekend.
According to Mohammed Idris, a supervisor at Ajdabiya hospital, at least eight rebels were killed and nine people, including two civilians, were injured in the shelling by Gaddafi forces and the subsequent gun battle with rebels in the streets. Other medics said three others were brougt dead in other hospitals.
The battle for the control of Ajdabiyah, 860 kilometres east of Tripoli, came as rebels pushed back an advance by Gaddafi's forces into Misurata. The lone rebel bastion in western Libya, 214 kilometres east of Tripoli, has been under siege of Gaddafi's forces for six weeks.
The Libyan government today claimed that it had downed two helicopters belonging to the opposition which were undermining the ‘no-fly' zone enforced by the NATO.
“A clear violation was committed by the rebels to [UN] resolution 1973 relating to the no-fly zone,” Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said.
The African peace mission earlier appealed for “an immediate end to all hostilities”, “dialogue between the Libyan parties” and a transition period to adopt reforms in the insurrection-hit country.
The South African foreign ministry in Johannesburg had said key issues on the agenda of both meetings “will be the immediate implementation of a ceasefire from both sides and the opening of a political dialogue between the two parties”.
“The main objective of the panel is to put an end to the war and to find an adequate solution to the crisis,” AU panel spokesman Abdel Aziz was quoted as saying by BBC.
Media reports said the opposition had fought off an assault by Gaddafi's forces on Misurata on Saturday, losing up to 30 men. Heavy shelling today killed one and wounding two others seriously in Libya's third largest city, reports said.
Rebels said people were crammed five families to a house to escape weeks of sniper, mortar and rocket fire. There are severe shortages of food, water and medical supplies and hospitals are overflowing, Al Jazeera said, adding that residents were fleeing.
The Red Cross has ferried emergency medical supplies and five staff for 300 people wounded in the city.
The rebels praised NATO for stepping up the attack on Gaddafi military targets. NATO accused government troops of using civilians as human shields.
The western military alliance said it destroyed key ammunition stockpiles and several armoured vehicles in air strikes across Libya in the last 24 hours. It had destroyed 17 tanks and damaged nine others, many around the western besieged town of Misrata, 214 kilometres east of Tripoli.
“One recent strike cratered the road leading to Ajdabiya, west of Brega, where his fuel and ammunition is being moved forward on large trucks. Further west we hit two more storage bunkers where the ammunition is coming from,” said Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, the commander of the alliance's operations in Libya.
“We have observed horrific examples of regime forces deliberately placing their weapons systems close to civilians, their homes and even their places of worship,” the Canadian general said.
He said troops have also been “observed hiding behind women and children.” “This type of behaviour violates the principles of international law and will not be tolerated,” he said in a statement.
A MiG-23 fighter jet flown near Benghazi by a rebel pilot earlier on Saturday was forced to land as it violated the ‘no-fly' zone, NATO said.
After not being seen for nearly a week, Gaddafi smiled and pumped his fists in his first television appearance since April 4.
Meanwhile, BBC reported that the rebels claimed to have captured Algerian mercenaries from Gaddafi's forces. PTI