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Fresh strikes in Libya as Zuma says Gadhafi is ready for cease-fire

By the CNN Wire Staff
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South African leader arrives in Libya
  • NEW: Two large explosions are heard early Monday near Tripoli
  • More than 100 Libyan soldiers defect, along with eight generals
  • Gadhafi says bombing by NATO must come to an end, South African president says
  • President Jacob Zuma meets with Gadhafi; doesn't say he will step down

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) -- Fresh explosions rang out early Tuesday near Tripoli, hours after South African President Jacob Zuma held talks with Moammar Gadhafi and signalled he was ready to accept an African Union plan for a cease-fire.

Around 12:45 a.m. Tuesday, a pair of large blasts were heard about five minutes apart, as jets flew over the capital of Tripoli.

A Libyan government official said the first strike hit Abu Sita, a former military turned construction site about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the city center. There was no immediate indication of where the second explosion occurred. Nor was there an immediate response from NATO, which has conducted regular strikes as part of its stated mission to halt Libyan leader Gadhafi's forces from killing innocent civilians.

Hours before the blasts, Zuma emerged from a meeting with the longtime Libyan strongman convinced that Gadhafi was ready for an end to hostilities, including such airstrikes and the ongoing fight with the Benghazi-based opposition movement. But he gave no indication that Gadhafi was prepared to step aside, as rebel leaders have insisted is their primary demand.

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"Brother leader took the position today that he is ready to implement the decision of the AU (that) there must be a cease-fire," Zuma told a scrum of reporters on the tarmac at Tripoli's Mitiga International Airport before boarding a jet. "The view is that that must include -- bombing by NATO must also come to an end," he said in the news conference, which was broadcast on Libyan state television.

Zuma added that Gadhafi said any cease-fire must apply to all parties, "but also, he makes the point that: Let the Libyan people be given a chance to talk among themselves. And therefore, he's ready to implement the road map of the AU."

Unlike some other world leaders, Zuma has not called for the longtime Libyan leader to step down. Neither has Zuma's African National Congress party nor the African Union, which he was representing and which Gadhafi once led. In fact, the AU has criticized the NATO airstrikes.

In April, Zuma led an AU delegation to Tripoli, where hopes were raised briefly when it was announced that Gadhafi had agreed, in principle, to the African Union's "road map" proposal for peace.

But Gadhafi continued his attacks and the Libyan opposition rejected the proposal because it did not meet its demand that he give up the power he has held for 42 years.

A government official said Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmudi also attended Monday's meeting. Baghdadi greeted Zuma upon his arrival at the airport, where dozens of Gadhafi supporters carried posters, some of which said, "May the leader be victorious" and "Thanks for great Africa."

The African Union has helped mediate peace talks before, including ones in Kenya and Zimbabwe that left the ruling powers in control.

It was not clear whether Zuma used the opportunity to press Gadhafi for information on the whereabouts of South African freelance photographer Anton Hammerl. Hammerl has been missing in Libya since April and is believed dead.

South Africa has said it got assurances from Libya that the journalist was alive. But a Libyan government spokesman has said his whereabouts were unknown.

"We never had him with us at any stage," spokesman Musa Ibrahim has said.

The meeting came as Gadhafi's grip on power appeared to continue to loosen. Eight generals from his army have defected to Italy, the Italian Foreign Ministry told CNN Monday.

The generals were accompanied by more than 100 Libyan soldiers, a senior Italian official with firsthand knowledge of, and responsibility for, the operation said.

The Libyans crossed their country's border into Tunisia, where they were met by Italian intelligence agents, the official said.

Italy announced Monday that it will open a consulate Tuesday in the rebel-held eastern city of Benghazi.

Also Monday, the first locally based television station to operate in Libya since the start of the revolution was to begin broadcasting from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. The station was founded by Momammed Nabus, who later was one of five journalists killed in the conflict.

"Gadhafi forces assassinated him for highlighting to the rest of the world the atrocities committed by the Gadhafi regime," said Zuheir Al-Barasi, who was to open the station's broadcast from the city's courthouse.

In recent weeks, Gadhafi has been seen in public only rarely as NATO has stepped up attacks against his sprawling Bab el-Azizia compound.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Monday that Gadhafi's "reign of terror is coming to an end."

"He is increasingly isolated at home and abroad," Rasmussen said during a speech in Bulgaria. "Even those closest to him are departing, defecting or deserting."

Rasmussen also said NATO has made "significant progress" in its Libya operation.

NATO said Monday it has conducted 3,385 strike sorties in Libya since March.

"We have seriously degraded Gadhafi's ability to kill his own people," Rasmussen said in his speech. "We have prevented more massacres in Misrata and elsewhere across the country, and we are saving lives every day."

The NATO-led bombing campaign began in March after the U.N. Security Council authorized the use of any means necessary -- short of occupation -- to protect civilians from attacks by Gadhafi's forces.

On Sunday, Libyan opposition forces continued to fend off attacks near the rebel-held port city of Misrata.

But rebel leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil said over the weekend that the opposition movement is running out of money even as it has achieved key victories militarily and diplomatically.

"We are going through a financial crisis," said Jalil, chairman of the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council.

In a speech in Geneva, Switzerland, the United Nations' top human rights official noted Monday "the brutality and magnitude of measures" taken by the Libyan government.

The government's actions have been "shocking," United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said, criticizing the "outright disregard for basic human rights."

CNN's Sara Sidner, Ben Wedeman, Nkepile Mabuse, Amir Ahmed, Raja Razek and Nima Elbagir contributed to this report.

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