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S.Africa’s Zuma heading to Russia for Libya talks

South African President Jacob Zuma is leaving Sunday for Russia for talks on Libya, a spokeswoman said, after an African Union summit sought to push a regional peace plan to end the conflict.

“He is leaving today, and the meeting is scheduled for tomorrow,” spokeswoman Zanele Mngadi told AFP on Sunday.

The foreign ministry in Pretoria said Zuma would meet with the International Contact Group on Libya, but no members of the group could confirm the talks. Its next scheduled meeting is July 15 in Istanbul.

Russia, which has also sought to play a mediating role in the nearly five-month conflict, has yet to confirm Zuma’s visit.

Zuma belongs to the African Union team tasked with finding a solution to the conflict in Libya. The foreign ministry said that he was travelling to Russia at Moscow’s invitation.

The Kremlin said in a statement late Saturday that Zuma and President Dmitry Medvedev held a telephone conversation in which they agreed on a “personal meeting in the closest time” but gave no details on when it would take place.

“The heads of state agreed on a personal meeting in the closest time to agree and coordinate the ensuing steps for a solution to the internal Libyan conflict,” it said.

Like South Africa, Russia has sought to be a key mediator, with Medvedev dispatching his envoy Mikhail Margelov both to rebel-held Benghazi and Kadhafi-controlled Tripoli for talks.

Medvedev has said it is time for Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi to step aside but Russia has also expressed mounting anger with the intensity and duration of the NATO air strikes against loyalist targets.

The announcement by Pretoria came shortly after Zuma returned home from the African Union summit in Equatorial Guinea, where the continental grouping adopted a plan for negotiations between the warring Libyan parties.

“We are very happy that we have reached this point, that we can now say very soon we will be launching the talks in Addis Ababa and we believe we will get the necessary support from everyone,” Zuma said late Friday after the summit.

But the accord reached at the summit did little to bring forward earlier AU proposals, which have been rejected by the rebellion who insist that Kadhafi must go.

New elements in the roadmap include provisions for a multinational peacekeeping force organised by the United Nations.

The AU also says that Kadhafi has agreed to stay out of the negotiations, but the 53-nation bloc was unable to take a position on his future, which is a key sticking point between the two sides.

The agreement contained no direct criticism of Kadhafi and even called for an amnesty for crimes during the conflict and the unfreezing of Libyan assets abroad.

The African Union also decided that its members would not execute an International Criminal Court arrest warrant against the leader.

Kadhafi was one of the main contributors to African Union running costs but also, thanks to his petrodollars, unilaterally funded several projects across the continent for years.