PRETORIA – African leaders welcomed Sunday Moamer Kadhafi's decision to stay out of negotiations to end Libya's four-month conflict, as battles raged between the regime and rebels near Tripoli.
Multiple rocket and heavy machine gunfire was heard on the plains below the rebel enclave in the Nafusa Mountains, southwest of Tripoli. Rebel commanders said the fighting centered on Bir al-Ghanam, a strategic point on the road to the Libyan capital.
Meanwhile, the African Union panel on Libya said after four hours of talks in the South African capital Pretoria that Kadhafi would not participate in peace talks, in what appeared to be a concession.
The panel "welcomes Colonel Kadhafi's acceptance of not being part of the negotiations process," AU peace and security commissioner Ramtane Lamamra said, reading out the communiqué without elaborating.
Rumours have been rife in recent days that the Libyan leader may consider leaving Tripoli and those rebels could accept his internal exile to a remote location.
But Kadhafi's government spokesman said Sunday he has no intention of leaving power or Libya.
"Kadhafi is here. He is staying. He is leading the country. He will not leave. He will not step down because he does not have any official position," Mussa Ibrahim said.
"We will not give in to some criminal gangs who took our cities hostage. We will not give in to the criminal organization of NATO. Every one continues to fight. We are ready to fight street to street, house to house," he added.
Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, vice chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), said on Saturday intermediaries had indicated that a proposal from Kadhafi was in the works, offering a faint glimmer of hope for a deal to end the bloodshed.
"We expect to get an offer very soon; he is unable to breathe," said Ghoga.
"We want to preserve life, so we want to end the war as soon as possible," he added. "We have always left him some room for an exit."
It was not immediately clear if the AU announcement was the awaited offer. The rest of the AU panel's communiqué reiterated the group's call for an immediate ceasefire and negotiations toward a democratic solution.
The communiqué was far softer than South African President Jacob Zuma's opening remarks, when he again warned NATO against overstepping the mandate of the UN resolution imposing a no-fly zone over Libya.
"The intention was not to authorize a campaign for regime change or political assassination," he said behind closed doors, according to a text of the speech.
Zuma urged both Kadhafi and the rebel NTC to make compromises to reach a deal in the face of a conflict that was degenerating into a protracted and bloody deadlock.
"On the ground, there is a military stalemate which cannot and must not be allowed to drag on and on -- both because of its horrendous cost in civilian lives and the potential it has to destabilize the entire sub-region," he said.
The AU has been leading mediation efforts in Libya with the blessing of other key players including Russia.
Kadhafi is a long-time backer of the AU and a forceful advocate for stronger continental integration. He held the pan-African body's rotating chair in 2009 and has twice held talks with members of the panel. (AFP)