Tripoli: The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant on Monday for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and rebels trying to oust him said their forces had advanced to within 80 km (50 miles) of the capital Tripoli.
The court approved warrants for Gaddafi as well as his son Saif al-Islam and Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi on charges of crimes against humanity. ICC prosecutors allege they were involved in the killing of protesters who rose up in February against Gaddafi`s 41-year rule.
Gaddafi has "absolute, ultimate and unquestioned control" over Libya`s state apparatus and its security forces, presiding judge Sanji Mmasenono Monageng said in reading out the ruling.
She added that both Gaddafi and Saif al-Islam "conceived and orchestrated a plan to deter and quell by all means the civilian demonstrations" against the regime and that al-Senussi used his position of command to have attacks carried out.
Gaddafi`s government denies targeting civilians, accusing NATO jets staging air strikes on behalf of rebels of doing so.
In Libya`s neighbor, Tunisia, three Libyan ministers, including the foreign minister, were holding talks with "foreign parties," the Tunisian state news agency reported, in a possible sign some in Gaddafi`s circle were seeking a settlement.
Anti-Gaddafi rebels, based in the Western Mountains region southwest of Tripoli, made their biggest breakthrough in weeks to reach the town of Bir al-Ghanam, where they are now fighting pro-Gaddafi forces for control, their spokesman said.
The advance took them about 30 km (18 miles) north from their previous position and closer to Tripoli, Gaddafi`s power base.
"We are on the southern and western outskirts of Bir al-Ghanam," Juma Ibrahim, a rebel spokesman in the nearby town of Zintan, said by telephone.
"There were battles there most of yesterday. Some of our fighters were martyred and they (government forces) also suffered casualties and we captured equipment and vehicles. It`s quiet there today and the rebels are still in their positions."
A reporter in the center of Tripoli heard at least two loud explosions on Sunday. The location of the blasts was not clear. A plume of smoke could be seen rising from the direction of Gaddafi`s Bab al-Aziziyah compound.
The rebels -- backed by NATO air support -- have been battling Gaddafi`s forces since late February, when thousands of people rose up against his rule, prompting a fierce crackdown by Gaddafi`s security forces.
The revolt has turned into the bloodiest of the Arab Spring revolts against autocratic rulers rippling across the Middle East.
For weeks now, rebels in their stronghold in the east and in enclaves in western Libya have been unable to make significant advances, while NATO air strikes have failed to dislodge Gaddafi, straining the Western alliance.
Analysts say that if insurgents outside Tripoli start gaining momentum, that could inspire anti-Gaddafi groups inside the capital to rise up, a development many believe could be the most effective way of toppling him.
Tunisia`s state news agency TAP reported late on Sunday that Libyan Foreign Minister Abdelati Obeidi was on the island of Djerba, in southern Tunisia, where he was "negotiating with several foreign parties."
It gave no details on the talks. Libya`s rebel leadership, in the eastern city of Benghazi, said last week it was in indirect contact with Gaddafi`s government, via foreign intermediaries, about a possible peace settlement.
Obeidi was joined at the Djerba talks by Health Minister Ahmed Hijazi and Social Affairs Minister Ibrahim Sherif, the Tunisian news agency reported.
"Gaddafi 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," Ibrahim said.
"We will not give in to some criminal gangs who took our cities hostage. We will not give in to the criminal organisation of NATO. Everyone continues to fight. We are ready to fight street to street, house to house," he added.
The wording of the AU panel`s statement was far softer than South African President Jacob Zuma`s opening remarks. He had again warned NATO against overstepping the mandate of the UN resolution imposing a no-fly zone over Libya.
"The intention was not to authorise a campaign for regime change or political assassination," Zuma said behind closed doors, according to a text of the speech.
Zuma urged both Gaddafi 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 destabilise the entire sub-region," he said.
Libyan officials frequently use Djerba, which is near the border with Libya, as a stopover on foreign trips because flights from Tripoli have ceased.
Libyan state television on Monday showed Obeidi in Sierra Leone meeting President Ernest Bai Koroma. It was not clear from the footage when the meeting took place.
SIGNS OF DISCORD
Gaddafi says he has no intention of relinquishing his grip on power. He has said the rebels are criminals and al Qaeda militants, and has called the NATO bombing campaign an act of colonial aggression aimed at stealing Libya`s oil.
Still, there were signs of discord within Gaddafi`s ruling circle at the weekend over how best to proceed.
A government spokesman early on Sunday renewed an offer to hold elections to decide on Gaddafi`s political future. The idea had previously been proposed by Saif al-Islam.
Later in the day, the same spokesman stepped back from those comments, saying Gaddafi was the historical choice of the Libyan people and could not be cast aside.
"Muammar Gaddafi is Libya`s historical symbol, and he is above all political actions, above all political and tactical games," Moussa Ibrahim said in a statement.
"In this current stage and in the future, Gaddafi is the historical choice which we cannot drop."
"As for the current and future Libya, it is up to the people and the leadership to decide it, and it is not up to the armed groups, nor up to NATO to decide it," he said.
"It is not possible for a new stage to begin before NATO stops its aggression against Libya. As for the armed groups, they have no force on the ground, nor popular representation."