Russia hosts Libya talks as rebels ready offensive
Russia was to host Libya talks with NATO states and lead mediator South Africa on Monday as rebels fighting Moamer Kadhafi's regime rejected an African peace blueprint and said they were poised for a major offensive.
South African President Jacob Zuma headed to the Russian city of Sochi keen to rescue the peace plan adopted by African leaders at a summit in Equatorial Guinea last week and press ahead with planned talks between the warring parties in Addis Ababa later this month.
NATO member states gathered for a regular meeting with Russian leaders in the Black Sea resort overshadowed by a conflict that has now dragged on four and a half months despite an air campaign by alliance members lasting more than 100 days.
Zuma and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev were to hold talks in a luxury sanatorium in Sochi on the sidelines of the NATO meeting, a Kremlin official said, as both governments seek to press the alliance to pave the way for a negotiated settlement.
South African officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the two leaders would likely issue a joint statement calling on NATO to stop the bombing.
But it was unclear if Zuma, who has been increasingly critical of the NATO-led bombing campaign, would also meet alliance chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
The foreign ministry in Pretoria said Zuma's talks in Sochi would include all members of the International Contact Group on Libya but could provide no further details.
The rebels on Sunday bluntly rejected the African Union peace plan being spearheaded by the South African president after announcing that they were readying a new push towards Tripoli from their enclave in the Nafusa Mountains southwest of the capital.
"We have rejected it," rebel spokesman Abdel Hafiz Ghoga told reporters in Libya's second-largest city Benghazi.
"It did not include the departure of Kadhafi, his sons and his inner circle. We have repeated this (demand) on more than one occasion."
The rebels, who pulled back from the plains on the road to Tripoli from the Nafusa Mountains last week, have been buoyed by controversial French arms drops and intensified NATO-led air strikes against Kadhafi's frontline armour.
"In the next two days the (revolutionaries) will come up with answers, things will change on the front line," rebel military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani said late on Saturday.
The new African Union peace blueprint rejected by the rebels did not go much further than previous proposals from the 53-nation bloc that had been dismissed by both the rebels and the Western alliance.
New elements included provisions for a multinational peacekeeping force to be organised by the United Nations, and an agreement by Kadhafi to stay out of any negotiations.
But there was no clear position on Kadhafi's future, the key stumbling block for the rebels.
"Any future proposals must not include a future (in power) for Kadhafi and his inner circle," said Ghoga.
Rebel envoys in Europe and elsewhere had previously indicated that the rebels may be open to joining the proposed talks in the Ethiopian capital.
The rebels received a new boost on Sunday when Turkey, previously a leading sceptic within NATO on the alliance's air campaign, gave de facto recognition to their Benghazi-based provisional government.
"We think the Transitional National Council is the legitimate representative of the Libyan people," visiting Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in Benghazi.
Asked if Turkey would consider hosting Kadhafi as part of a peace deal, he said: "If there is an agreement being achieved we will do everything, everything possible."
The head of the African Union panel on Libya, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, on Sunday met a Kadhafi envoy, the Mauritanian news agency reported.
They discussed "issues of common interest," the news agency said without elaborating
© 2011 AFP