Libya's revolutionary leadership has flatly rejected an African Union peace initiative because it does not require Muammar Gaddafi to immediately relinquish power.
The rebels' interim ruling council met an AU delegation from five countries – led by three presidents and two foreign ministers – the day after Gaddafi endorsed the African "roadmap to peace", which included an immediate ceasefire, the suspension of Nato air strikes and talks towards a political settlement.
But Mustafa Abdul Jalil, the revolutionary council chairman, said the rebels had told the AU its proposal had been outdated by events, including the UN security council resolution authorising air strikes, and was in any case unacceptable because it left Gaddafi in power while both sides negotiated.
"From the very beginning we have been asking that the exit of Gaddafi and his sons take place immediately. We cannot consider this or any future proposal that does not include this peoples' requirement," said Jalil. "He leaves on his own or the march of the people will be at his doorstep."
That view was strongly backed by thousands of demonstrators outside the Benghazi hotel where the talks were held. They waved revolutionary flags and carried signs saying: "No solution with Gaddafi staying".
Jalil said that the AU peace proposal was drafted a month ago and had been overtaken by the UN security council resolution requiring Gaddafi to halt his attacks on civilians.
"Colonel Gaddafi did not recognise this resolution and continued bombing civilians from the air and shooting them, and surrounding cities with his forces and put his forces inside cities. There is not any way the Libyan people can accept such a situation," he said.
Although the AU proposal included a ceasefire, the rebels said it did not go far enough. They want one that requires Gaddafi to withdraw his forces from towns where they have been used to suppress the revolution, particularly Misrata and Zawiya, and the allowing of unfettered public protest in the hope that Libyans in cities still under Gaddafi's control will seize the opportunity to rise up.
The British foreign secretary, William Hague, backed the revolutionaries' position saying that Gaddafi must go and that a new ceasefire would have to meet the UN requirement for a withdrawal of his forces from cities they are attacking.
"Anything short of this would be a betrayal of the people of Libya and would play into the hands of the regime, which has announced two utterly meaningless ceasefires since the fighting began without its vicious military campaign missing a single beat," the foreign secretary said.
Jalil also rejected the AU's proposal for a cessation of Nato air strikes.
"If it were not for the air strikes carried out by the coalition forces and Nato we would not now be at this meeting," he said.
The AU's proposal for an end to the air strikes was also met with scepticism by Nato. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato secretary general, said that for a ceasefire to work it would need to be "credible and verifiable", suggesting that international monitors would need to be deployed on the ground in Libya, but that it was "too early" for this.
"We need to establish an effective monitoring mechanism if a ceasefire is to be credible," he said.
Jalil said that the revolutionary council had confronted the AU delegation with evidence that mercenaries from several African countries were fighting for Gaddafi, particularly from Algeria.
The AU delegation – made up of South Africa, Uganda, Mauritania, Congo-Brazzaville and Mali – left the talks looking glum, without making a public comment and to the derisive shouts of the protesters outside the hotel.
The revolutionary leadership was distrustful of the AU initiative from the beginning. Gaddafi used Libya's oil wealth to buy greater influence in Africa after his aspirations to forge an Arab union were spurned. The AU delegation included the leaders of countries that have taken money from Gaddafi as well as South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma, whose party, the African National Congress, has accepted considerable donations from the Libyan leader.
The rebels were disturbed to see Zuma refer to the Libyan dictator as "brother leader". The South African leader did not travel on to the Benghazi meeting.
While Gaddafi told the AU he was ready for a ceasefire, his forces continued their onslaught against Misrata. Unicef warned that thousands of children in the city were in grave danger.
At least 20 children, mostly under the age of 10, have been killed in the besieged city in the past month, according to Unicef. Many more have been injured by gunfire or shrapnel from mortars and tank shells.
"More and more children in this city are being killed, injured and denied their essential needs due to the fighting," said Shahida Azfar of Unicef. "Until the fighting stops we face the intolerable inevitability of children continuing to die and suffer in this war zone."
At least 250 people in the town, mostly civilians, have died in the past month according to two doctors interviewed by phone by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
"The Libyan government's near-siege of Misrata has not prevented reports of serious abuses getting out," said Sarah Leah Whitson of HRW. "We've heard disturbing accounts of shelling and shooting at a clinic and in populated areas, killing civilians where no battle was raging."