Colonel Moammar Gadhafi has accepted a roadmap for ending the civil war in Libya, South African President Jacob Zuma said after leading a delegation of African leaders at talks in Tripoli.
Mr. Zuma, who with four other African heads of state met Col. Gadhafi for several hours at the Libyan leader's Bab al-Aziziyah compound, also called on NATO to stop air strikes on Libyan government targets to "give ceasefire a chance."
No one at the talks gave details of the roadmap for peace in this oil-producing nation. Rebels have said they will accept nothing less than an end to Col. Gadhafi's four decades in power, but Libyan officials say he will not quit.
"The brother leader delegation has accepted the roadmap as presented by us. We have to give ceasefire a chance," Mr. Zuma said, adding that the African delegation would now travel to the eastern city of Benghazi for talks with anti-Gaddafi rebels.
NATO stepped up attacks on Mr. Gadhafi's armour on Sunday to weaken the bitter siege of Misrata in the west and disrupt a dangerous advance by his troops in the east.
The alliance said it destroyed 11 tanks on the outskirts of the eastern rebel town of Ajdabiyah, which looked in danger of being overrun on Sunday, and 14 near Misrata, a lone insurgent bastion in the west that has been under siege for six weeks.
There was no sign of any let-up in the fighting and despite the African leaders' peace roadmap hopes of a negotiated settlement looked slim.
A rebel spokesman rejected a deal with Col. Gadhafi to end the conflict, bloodiest in a series of pro-democracy revolts across the Arab world that have ousted the autocratic leaders of Tunisia and Egypt.
"There is no other solution than the military solution, because this dictator's language is annihilation, and people who speak this language only understand this language," spokesman Ahmad Bani told al Jazeera television.
NATO said it had increased the tempo of its air operations over the weekend, after rebels accused it of responding too slowly to government attacks.
The insurgents hailed the more muscular approach.
The NATO strikes outside Ajdabiyah on Sunday helped break the biggest assault by Col. Gadhafi's forces on the eastern front for at least a week.
The town is the gateway to the rebel stronghold of Benghazi 150 km north up the Mediterranean coast.
A Reuters reporter saw six burning hulks surrounded by 15 charred and dismembered bodies in two sites 300 metres apart on Ajdabiyah's western approaches which rebels said were hit by air strikes. "NATO has to do this to help us every single day. That is the only way we are going to win this war," said 25-year-old rebel Tarek Obeidy, standing over the bodies.
The government attack, which began on Saturday, included a fierce artillery and rocket bombardment, while some of Col. Gadhafi's forces, including snipers, penetrated Ajdabiyah. Rebels cowered in alleys for several hours under the bombardment.
The corpses of four rebels were found dumped on a roadside.
"Their throats were slit. They were all shot a few times in the chest as well. I just could not stop crying when I saw them," said rebel Muhammad Saad. "This is becoming tougher and tougher."
But by afternoon rebels looked back in control of Ajdabiyah, commanding key intersections, and the artillery and small arms fire had died down.
Ajdabiyah had been the launch point for insurgents during a week-long fight for the oil port of Brega 70 km further west, and its fall would be a serious loss.
Col. Gadhafi, making his first appearance in front of the foreign media in weeks, joined the visiting African leaders at his Bab al-Aziziyah compound.
He then climbed into a sports utility vehicle and was driven about 50 metres where he waved through the sunroof and made the "V" for victory sign to a crowd of cheering supporters.
It was Col. Gadhafi's second appearance in two days after he received an ecstatic welcome at a Tripoli school on Saturday.
The appearances, and Col. Gadhafi's upbeat demeanour, confirmed the impression among analysts that his circle has emerged from a period of paralysis and is hunkering down for a long campaign, another sign that mediation will be difficult.
Analysts predict a drawn-out, low-level conflict possibly leading to partition between east and west in the sprawling North African Arab state, a major oil and natural gas producer.
NATO's commander of Libyan operations said the alliance, which took over air strikes against Col. Gadhafi from three Western powers on March 31, had destroyed "a significant percentage" of Col. Gadhafi's armour and ammunition stockpiles east of Tripoli.
Canadian Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard said after Sunday's air attacks: "The situation in Ajdabiyah, and Misrata in particular, is desperate for those Libyans who are being brutally shelled by the (Gadhafi) regime."