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Zuma arrives in Libya on peace mission

The South African president hopes to broker a deal between Moammar Kadafi and the rebels who want to drive him from power. But the Libyan leader has given no indication that he would relinquish power.

May 30, 2011|By Patrick J. McDonnell | Los Angeles Times
  • South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, left front, arrives at Mitiga airport in Tripoli.
South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, left front, arrives at Mitiga… (STR, Reuters )

Reporting from Tripoli, Libya — South African President Jacob Zuma arrived Monday in Tripoli, hoping to broker an end to the 3-month-old conflict between longtime leader Moammar Kadafi and rebels who want to drive him from power.

Zuma was met by a crowd chanting, "We love Kadafi!" and a group of Libyan officials who whisked him away toward the city center in a convoy of limousines, presumably to a meeting with Kadafi. It was unclear what kind of deal the two leaders might be discussing.

Kadafi faces stepped-up bombardments and the threat of strikes by attack helicopters but seems determined to maintain his grip on power, in part by rallying a diminished roster of allies to counter his regime's isolation.

There is no indication that Kadafi is willing to relinquish power as demanded by the rebels, Western governments and even longtime allies Russia and Turkey.

Reports have surfaced of secret peace feelers, including a meeting in Tunis, Tunisia, this weekend between a Libyan Foreign Ministry official and a former British ambassador to Libya, Oliver Miles. But such efforts have foundered on Kadafi's insistence that he remain in charge.

"No one has the right to ask him to leave the grave of his forefathers," said Musa Ibrahim, chief government spokesman.

On Sunday, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox aimed some pointed comments at the strongman's inner circle.

"He will go sooner or later," Fox said in a television interview. "And the calculation for those around him is how long they continue to invest in someone who will ultimately be a loser."

Britain also revealed that the Royal Air Force was preparing 2,000-pound Paveway III bunker-buster bombs to target Kadafi compounds.

The increased military pressure seemed designed to sow uncertainty and dissent in a government suffering defections, daily bombardment led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and an uprising by rebels who now control much of eastern Libya. British authorities have reported that Kadafi is spending each night in different hospitals to avoid bomb attacks, an assertion denied by the Libyan government.

The regime appears to be placing considerable hope in Zuma, who will be representing the African Union, many of whose members have benefited from Kadafi's largess.

The rebels and their allies have already rejected the African Union's proposal, which includes a cease-fire and negotiated settlement, but not Kadafi's departure.

Despite its close ties to Kadafi, South Africa was among three African nations that voted for the United Nations resolution approving the use of force in Libya to protect civilians. Libyan officials privately say they view that as a betrayal.

"I don't see what Mr. Zuma is going to negotiate," said George Joffe, an affiliate lecturer and North Africa expert at Cambridge University. "I think Kadafi's trying to hold on in the hope that the African Union can pull a rabbit out of its hat and NATO will accept some kind of compromise. But I don't think a compromise is in the cards."

Experts say NATO wants to end the conflict before it drains public support in the Arab world.

Meanwhile, Kadafi's troops face the prospect of French and British helicopters entering the war, possibly in the battle outside Misurata, 120 miles east of Tripoli.

Reports from Misurata indicate that the opposition expects sea-based helicopters to augment their forces in a push toward the capital. The pan-Arab satellite television channel Al Jazeera showed footage Sunday of what it said appeared to be foreign military advisors working in tandem with rebels west of Misurata. There was no confirmation of the report.

It is unclear whether the ill-trained rebels can make a significant push toward Tripoli, even with the help of attack helicopters. A much larger rebel force is stalled farther to the east despite heavy NATO bombardment of Kadafi's forces.

As the pressure increases, Kadafi appears to be seeking allies anywhere he can find them.

On Sunday, the government held a news conference that featured condemnations of NATO and French President Nicolas Sarkozy from two prominent French intellectuals — former Foreign Minister Roland Dumas and Jacques Verges, a lawyer whose clients have included Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie and "Carlos the Jackal," the Venezuelan-born master terrorist.

The two said they had seen evidence of widespread casualties among civilians from NATO's bombing, an assertion denied by the alliance. Verges said he would gladly represent Kadafi if the Libyan leader were ever brought before an international tribunal.

A Libyan cleric, Khaled Tantush, accused the media of distorting the regime's record.

Kadafi has said his regime has armed 1 million Libyans. "There are a million Libyans willing to die!" Tantush shouted at foreign journalists gathered in a hotel facing the Mediterranean. "We are all willing to die!"

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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