A former Libyan prime minister said Friday that his country is ready to hold talks with opposition rebels and to accept political reforms, possibly including elections.
The announcement came only hours after a top African Union official called for a transition period in Libya that would lead to democratic elections. The AU met Friday with Libyan delegates in Ethiopia's capital.
Abdul-Ati al-Obeidi, a member of the delegation, said the current violence in Libya is being carried out by "extremists" and foreign intervention.
"We are ready to discuss what the Libyan people want," he said. "What kind of reform do they want? If it is elections we are willing to discuss about the details. We are willing to negotiate with anyone. These are our people. There is no division between the Libyan people; there is a division between extremists and the Libyan people."
The AU did not immediately release a statement, so there was no immediate indication of what their policy plan is.
The delegation also said in a statement that Libya's government is committed to a cease-fire and that it demanded an end to air attacks and a naval blockade carried out by the United States and other Western forces.
The delegation also accused the military action of killings "hundreds" of civilians, though Western powers say there has been no proof of any civilian deaths caused by the international military intervention.
Rebel leaders indicated that they had no representatives at the talks.
African Union commission chairman Jean Ping said in an opening speech that the AU favors an inclusive transitional period that would lead to democratic elections.
Ping stressed the inevitability of political reforms in Libya and called the aspirations of the Libyan people "legitimate." He said the international community needed to agree on a way forward.
The statement calling for a transition toward elections is the strongest Libya-related statement to come out of the AU since the Libya crisis began, and could be seen as a strong rebuke to a leader who has long been well regarded by the continental body.
Although U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had indicated on Thursday that he expected the rebels to be part of the talks, Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the opposition rebels, said he has heard nothing about the meetings.
"The position of the national council has been clear from the beginning _ no negotiations," he said. "All he has to do is stop bombing and leave the country," Gheriani said, referring to Gadhafi.
Libya is one of the largest donors to the AU, and in 2009 Gadhafi was given the AU's rotating, one-year chairmanship.
Gadhafi was also instrumental in the formation of the AU in 2002, and used Libya's oil wealth to fund the transformation of the old Organization of African Unity into the present-day African Union. He often has attended AU summits flanked by a coterie of extravagantly dressed men who call themselves the "traditional kings of Africa" and describe Gadhafi as the lead king.
South Africa-based analyst Francis Ikome said if there is one organization Gadhafi might listen to, it's the AU, but that the group's declaration was "too much, too late." He said it's difficult to talk about elections while a war is going on and in such a tribal environment as Libya.
"Gadhafi has his back against the wall," said Ikome, who leads the African Conflict Prevention program at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies. "This has the potential of radicalizing him. He knows if he leaves power, his next destination could be (the International Criminal Court at) The Hague. So whatever the AU is saying in terms of democratization, it has come too late."
NATO expects to commence aerial operations over Libya by Monday, Group Capt. Geoffrey Booth from NATO's military staff said in Brussels on Friday. If the North Atlantic Council, the alliance's top body, approves a broader mission by then, the NATO force would then be authorized to both intercept any aircraft and conduct air strikes against ground forces threatening civilians.
The entire operation would then fall under a unified command.
Libya's air force has been effectively neutralized by the international military effort, and the government has taken part of its fight to the airwaves. State television has aired pictures of bodies it said were victims of airstrikes, but a U.S. intelligence report bolstered rebel claims that Gadhafi's forces had simply taken bodies from a morgue.
The U.N. Security Council authorized the embargo and no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians after Gadhafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who demanded that he step down after 42 years in power. But rebel advances have foundered, and the two sides have been at stalemate in key cities such as Misrata and Ajdabiya, the gateway to the opposition's eastern stronghold.
Ajdabiya has been under siege for more than a week, with the rebels holding the city center but facing relentless shelling from government troops positioned on the outskirts.
Associated Press reporters Anita Powell in Johannesburg, Ryan Lucas in Benghazi, Libya and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.