Libyan opposition leaders on Monday rejected an African Union "road map" for making peace with Moammar Gadhafi, saying that nothing short of the strongman's immediate resignation would satisfy them.
The proposal, which Gadhafi reportedly endorsed after meeting with the African delegation Sunday in Tripoli, called for a cease-fire in the nearly two-month-old conflict, suspension of the NATO airstrikes — which have slowed Gadhafi's military campaign against the eastern-based rebels — and talks between the sides on political reforms.
The opposition swiftly countered that the plan ignored its main demand.
"This proposal did not include the exit of Colonel Gadhafi and his sons and inner circle, and it included reforms within the structure of the Gadhafi regime. This is rejected completely," said Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, a member of the Transitional National Council, the de facto rebel government based in the eastern city of Benghazi.
Its Western allies agreed.
"I only see this going one way," said a Western diplomat who's spent the last few days meeting with opposition leaders, referring to Gadhafi's ouster. "It's only a matter of when." He requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to journalists.
Gadhafi has long been one of the African Union's loudest champions, and he's contributed a sizable chunk of its budget every year in a bid to win influence on the continent. That may be one reason that the group's delegation, representing South Africa and four other African countries, was willing to make a presentation that advocated a continuing Gadhafi role in Libya.
But the results of the delegation's closed-door meeting with opposition leaders at a Benghazi hotel was easily foretold. Hundreds of protesters gathered outside under a banner that read: "First Gadhafi and his family leaves, then we negotiate."
The highest-profile member of the team, South African President Jacob Zuma, didn't make the trip from Tripoli, citing a scheduling conflict, which Libyan opposition leaders read as a sign of the plan's dim prospects.
The Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, strongly backed the rebels' position, saying that Gadhafi's resignation would have to occur "in parallel" with a cease-fire.
"The sons and the family of Gadhafi cannot participate in the political future of Libya," Frattini told France's Europe 1 radio.
Zuma, speaking in Tripoli on Sunday and referring to Gadhafi as "brother leader," called for a transitional period during which Gadhafi and the opposition would discuss political reforms including "justice, peace and security as well as socioeconomic development." The plan also called for both sides to ensure the safe passage of humanitarian aid.
The other countries represented in the delegation were Uganda, Mali, Mauritania and Congo-Brazzaville.
The Obama administration's envoy to Benghazi, Chris Stevens, didn't participate in the meetings. Speaking in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States supported a cease-fire but wanted to see Gadhafi's army end a weeks-long siege of the rebel-held western city of Misrata and other civilian areas.
"We've made it very clear that we want to see a cease-fire," Clinton said. "We want to see Libyan regime forces pull back from the areas that they have forcibly entered. We want to see a resumption of water, electricity and other services to cities that have been brutalized by the Gadhafi forces. …
"These terms are non-negotiable."
In Brussels, NATO officials said that Gadhafi forces shelled Misrata for more than a half-hour early Monday and that NATO airstrikes destroyed an additional 11 tanks and five military vehicles belonging to Gadhafi's forces around Misrata and Ajdabiya, a gateway eastern town 100 miles south of Benghazi where rebels repelled a Gadhafi onslaught over the weekend.
Most of the tanks destroyed were near Ajdabiya, where Gadhafi forces had retreated after airstrikes Sunday, NATO officials said.
"We know we are having an effect," said Canadian Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, the commander of the NATO operation in Libya. "His forces are showing signs of confusion, but the pressure will remain and our forces are determined to protect civilians from these attacks."
Ajdabiya has changed hands several times in recent weeks, and despite NATO air support the ragtag rebe ls have been unable to push farther west to the strategic oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanouf.