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African mediators in Libya as NATO hits tanks

TRIPOLI, Apr 11 – The regime of Libya\’s Muammar Gaddafi has accepted an African Union peace plan designed to the end the current conflict, South African President Jacob Zuma said from Tripoli, as air strikes took out 26 loyalist tanks.

A high-ranking African Union delegation arrived in Libya earlier to try to broker a truce between Muammar Gaddafi and rebels seeking to oust him, with NATO warplanes still in action against regime forces in the stricken port city of Misrata and Ajdabiya in the east.

Gaddafi\’s delegation accepted the AU\’s proposals, added Zuma, who was set to leave Libya Sunday though other members of the AU delegation would be staying in Tripoli overnight before travelling west to rebel-held Benghazi, 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) east of Tripoli.

"We also in this communique are making a call on NATO to cease the bombings to allow and to give a ceasefire a chance," Zuma stressed.

So far, the leaders of the uprising have rejected any ceasefire plan which involves leaving either Gaddafi or his sons in power.

In addition to Zuma, the AU delegation includes three other African leaders: Mali\’s Amadou Toumani Toure, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz of Mauritania and Congo\’s Denis Sassou Nguesso.

The African mediators were welcomed to Tripoli by Kadhafi supporters holding the veteran Libyan leader\’s picture and waving the green flags of his regime.

They joined the embattled Gaddafi for a photocall outside the Bedouin tent in his Bab al-Aziziya compound before being driven by minibus to greet a crowd of his supporters and then leaving for an undisclosed destination.

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The opposition has already said it rejects any ceasefire that would mean Gaddafi or his sons stay in power.

Earlier, the AU mediators reiterated their appeal for "an immediate end to all hostilities" and proposed a transition period to adopt reforms in the insurrection-hit country.

Britain\’s former premier Tony Blair earlier Sunday told CNN Kadhafi should not be underestimated.

"Whatever people say about being delusional and so forth, he\’s kept that grip there for 40 years," Blair said on the channel\’s "State of the Union" programme.

In Brussels, NATO said it had hit at least 26 regime tanks near Misrata and Ajdabiya.

After destroying 14 tanks around Misrata early in the day, warplanes struck more tanks and anti-aircraft guns in the late afternoon, a NATO official said on condition of anonymity.

Near Ajdabiya, alliance aircraft blasted 11 tanks in the morning and struck one more tank and three military vehicles in the evening.

The alliance had already taken out 15 tanks near Misrata on Friday and Saturday.

"The pressure continues as NATO strikes go on day and night," the official said.

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Earlier, the NATO operation\’s commander Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard said: "The situation in Ajdabiya, and Misrata in particular, is desperate for those Libyans who are being brutally shelled by the regime.

"To help protect these civilians we continue to strike these forces hard…" he said in a statement.

"We are hitting the regime logistics facilities as well as their heavy weapons because we know Gaddafi is finding it hard to sustain his attacks on civilians."

In Geneva, the international Red Cross expressed concern about several thousand foreign migrants stranded in Misrata.

The group was found living under tarpaulins and shelters by an International Committee of the Red Cross team that entered the city by sea for a day to evaluate medical conditions and aid needs, an ICRC spokeswoman said.

Elsewhere on the battlefield, rebels said on Sunday they had captured 15 Algerian mercenaries and killed another three during fierce fighting in Ajdabiya the previous day.

Medics also said at least 12 rebels were killed in and around Ajdabiya over the weekend.

Officials at Benghazi\’s Jala hospital said it had received nine "martyrs" from the fighting and 14 wounded, and a doctor at Al-Hawwara hospital said it had received three dead and three wounded.

A doctor at Misrata hospital gave AFP the same death toll for Saturday, saying they included civilians, while putting the number of wounded at 25.

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The doctor said the hospital had received three bodies on Sunday, two rebels and a civilian, adding it was possible there could be more fatalities at other medical facilities.

Western strikes against regime forces began on March 19 under a UN mandate to protect the population after Kadhafi unleashed his security forces to quell pro-democracy protests.

NATO took control of the operation on March 31.

Libyan rebels have criticised NATO in recent days, accusing the alliance of failing to protect the people of Misrata.

But NATO says it is picking up the pace of air strikes.

Loud explosions rocked Ajdabiya for a second day on Sunday, as rebels advanced cautiously after suffering a major reverse at the hands of loyalists.

Rebel spokesman Shamsiddin Abdulmolah told AFP in Benghazi that 18 men they captured near Ajdabiya were not carrying identification, but "they said they were Algerian and they had Algerian accents."

"They were claiming to be selling hashish… and they had hashish with them. This is the whole crazy thing about it," he said.

He also said several Algerian ID cards and passports were found in a nearby building in Ajdabiya.

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In Algiers, foreign ministry spokesman Amar Belani categorically denied Algerian involvement "in this alleged mercenary operation."

An Associated Press photographer, 35-year-old Indian Altaf Qadri, who was reported missing near Ajdabiya, was located unharmed, AP said on Sunday.


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