Zuma, Libya hold inconclusive talks, officers defect

TRIPOLI Tue May 31, 2011 3:01am IST

Libya's Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Ali Al-Mahmoudi (front R) walks with South Africa's President Jacob Zuma (front L) upon his arrival at Mitiga airport in Tripoli May 30, 2011. REUTERS/Ismail Zetouny

Libya's Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Ali Al-Mahmoudi (front R) walks with South Africa's President Jacob Zuma (front L) upon his arrival at Mitiga airport in Tripoli May 30, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Ismail Zetouny

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TRIPOLI (Reuters) - South African President Jacob Zuma made little apparent headway towards brokering a Libya peace deal in talks with Muammar Gaddafi on Monday as eight army officers became the latest senior figures to break with the Libyan leader.

In Rome, the eight officers, including five generals, appeared at an Italian government-arranged news conference, saying they were part of a group of up to 120 military officials and soldiers who defected from Gaddafi in recent days.

The defections come two months after that of Libyan foreign minister and former espionage chief Moussa Koussa and the resignation of senior diplomat Ali Abdussalm Treki.

In Rome, one of the defecting officers, who identified himself as General Oun Ali Oun, told reporters: "What is happening to our people has frightened us.

"There is a lot of killing, genocide ... violence against women. No wise, rational person with the minimum of dignity can do what we saw with our eyes and what he asked us to do."

Libyan U.N. ambassador Abdurrahman Shalgam, who has also defected from Gaddafi, said all 120 of the military personnel were outside Libya now but he did not say where they were.

In Tripoli, Zuma told Libyan media that Gaddafi wanted a ceasefire including an end to NATO bombing, terms already rejected last month after an earlier mediation mission by Zuma.

Zuma added, without elaborating: "We discussed the necessity of giving the Libyan people the opportunity to solve their problem on their own."

Libyan television later reported that coalition aircraft struck what it called a number of civilian and military sites in the capital's Tajura district.

The television broadcast footage of Gaddafi welcoming Zuma, giving the outside world the first view of the Libyan leader since May 11, when he was shown by the country's television meeting what it said were tribal leaders.

Gaddafi was shown greeting Zuma and other officials and then walking with them down a corridor. Gaddafi and Zuma's delegation were then seen sitting in white armchairs in a large room. The television did not say where the meeting took place.

Gaddafi was also shown thrusting his fist in the air as he bid farewell to Zuma, who was seen boarding a plane at the end of the visit.

Zuma's visit was his second since the conflict began in February. His previous trip made little progress because Gaddafi has refused to end his 41-year-old rule, while rebel leaders say that is a precondition for any truce.

NATO warplanes have been raising the pace of their air strikes on Tripoli, with Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziyah compound in the centre of the city being hit repeatedly.

Journalists escorted into Bab Al-Aziziyah after Zuma arrived found a group of around 160 African visitors to Libya chanting pro-Gaddafi slogans and waving flags of nations including Chad, Niger and Ghana, in an apparent show of pan-African unity.

Britain said on Sunday it was to add "bunker-busting" bombs to the arsenal its warplanes are using over Libya, a weapon it said would send a message to Gaddafi that it was time to quit.

"Our operation in Libya is achieving its objectives ... We have seriously degraded Gaddafi's ability to kill his own people," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a NATO forum in Varna, Bulgaria.

"Gaddafi's reign of terror is coming to an end," he said.

Gaddafi denies attacking civilians, saying his forces were obliged to act to contain armed criminal gangs and al Qaeda militants. He says the NATO intervention is an act of colonial aggression aimed at grabbing Libya's plentiful oil reserves.

DEADLOCK

Britain and other NATO powers are ratcheting up the military pressure to break a deadlock that has seen Gaddafi hold on to power despite a rebellion and weeks of air strikes.

U.S. Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the Joint Operations Command at Naples, declined to comment on whether NATO would put forces on the ground but suggested a small force may be needed to help the rebels once Gaddafi's rule collapses.

Britain said the Enhanced Paveway III bombs, each weighing nearly a tonne and capable of penetrating the roof or wall of a reinforced building, had arrived at the Italian air base from where British warplanes fly missions over Libya.

The military alliance says it is acting under a mandate from the United Nations to protect civilians from attack by security forces trying to put down the rebellion against Gaddafi.

But the more aggressive tactics risk causing divisions within the fragile alliance backing the intervention, and could also lead to NATO being dragged closer towards putting its troops on Libyan soil, something it is anxious to avoid.

ATTACK HELICOPTERS

Further deepening their involvement, Britain and France have said they will deploy attack helicopters over Libya to better pick out pro-Gaddafi forces. Helicopters are more vulnerable to attack from the ground than high-flying warplanes.

Rebels control the east of Libya around the city of Benghazi, Libya's third-biggest city Misrata, and a mountain range stretching from the town of Zintan, 150 km (95 miles) south of Tripoli, towards the border with Tunisia.

Helped by NATO air support, the rebels have been able to repel attacks by pro-Gaddafi forces but in many places they are still under bombardment and cut off from supplies.

Libyan state television reported that NATO air strikes killed 13 people in Zlitan on Monday, the next town westwards on the coast road towards Tripoli from Misrata.

The state news agency Jana also reported that NATO air strikes hit the Tiji area, near the Western Mountain town of Nalut, overnight, causing "human and material losses".

(Additional reporting by Joseph Logan in Tripoli, Ahmed Tolba and Isabel Coles in Cairo, Joseph Nasr in Berlin, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Matt Robinson in Zintan and Tsvetelia Tsolova in Varna; Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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