TRIPOLI — South African President Jacob Zuma met Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi Monday but appeared to make no breakthrough in his attempt to broker a peace deal, as the regime was hit by a wave of high-level defections and the reemergence of protests in the capital.
Zuma, who also visited Tripoli in April, reiterated that Gaddafi had accepted an African Union peace plan calling for a cease-fire and dialogue, a plan explicitly rejected by rebels and implicitly by NATO, who maintain Gaddafi has to leave before any cease-fire can take effect.
Underlining NATO’s ultimate objective, the alliance’s Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a conference in Bulgaria on Monday that Gaddafi’s “reign of terror” was coming to an end.
Hours later in Rome, eight Libyan army officers, including five generals, appeared at a news conference arranged by the Italian government, saying they were part of a group of 120 military officials and soldiers who had defected in recent days.
“What is happening to our people has frightened us,” one of the defecting officers, who identified himself as General Oun Ali Oun, told reporters, according to news agencies. “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 [Gaddafi] asked us to do.”
In Tripoli, hundreds of people took to the streets in the Souk al-Juma neighborhood after the funeral of two rebel activists killed in a clash with security forces, a dissident said, in a protest captured on video. It was the third peaceful protest to have erupted in Tripoli in the past week, he said, but the first to be filmed.
“There is no god but Allah, and Moammar is the enemy of Allah,” they chanted. “The blood of martyrs will not be shed for nothing.”
The timing of the protest could not be independently confirmed, given restrictions on foreign reporters in Tripoli.
Protests in Tripoli were violently suppressed in February, with scores of people killed, human rights group say. Since then the city has been relatively subdued, with many people saying they were scared to speak out for fear of being arrested.
But the reappearance of protesters on the streets in broad daylight could be a sign that the security forces are now struggling to keep a lid on dissent. Monday’s protest was dispersed after members of the feared Katiba security forces arrived in their trademark Toyota Tundra trucks and fired over people’s heads, the dissident said.
“Public anti-regime sentiment is increasing day by day in a progressive manner, which may culminate in an acute flare-up and an outpouring of people onto the streets of Tripoli,” he said by Skype. “I cannot say how close we are to ‘zero hour’ but there are all the signs that we are moving steadily towards it.”
The defections announced in Rome may reignite hope among Gaddafi’s opponents that the regime is nearing collapse, coming two months after that of Libya’s foreign minister and former espionage chief Moussa Koussa.
One of the officers, Gen. Melud Massoud Halasa, claimed that Gaddafi’s military forces are “only 20 percent as effective” as they were before the revolt broke out in mid-February, and that “not more than 10” generals remain loyal to the Libyan leader.
NATO has at times appeared to be struggling to ratchet up the pressure on Gaddafi, with the regime often sounding as defiant as ever and rebels struggling to make military advances.
But airstrikes on Tripoli have increased in recent weeks, and Britain and France have said they are ready to deploy attack helicopters.
NATO’s Rasmussen said the military mission was achieving its objectives. “We have seriously degraded Gaddafi’s ability to kill his own people,” he said. “He is increasingly isolated at home and abroad. Even those closest to him are departing, defecting or deserting.”
With Russia’s decision to withdraw its support for the regime on Friday, most of Gaddafi’s few remaining allies are now in sub-Saharan Africa.
Although South Africa voted for the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the enforcement of a no-fly zone, Zuma has since criticized NATO for going beyond its mandate and attempting to engineer Gaddafi’s ouster. He is advocating an African Union proposal that calls for cease-fire and dialogue with the opposition.
On Monday, images of Zuma meeting Gaddafi at the leader’s sprawling Bab al-Aziziyah residential and administrative complex appeared on state television. Avoiding Western reporters, Zuma spoke afterwards only to South African and Libyan television. “He is ready to implement the road map,” Zuma said.
But Sheikh Khalifa Zuwawi, the chairman of the city council in the rebel-held city of Misurata, said the only proposal the rebels were interested in hearing from Zuma was that Gaddafi should stand down. “There is just one offer — that he leaves,” he said.
Special correspondent Portia Walker contributed from Misurata.