SOUTH African President Jacob Zuma arrived in Tripoli yesterday for talks with Gaddafi aimed at ending the war in Libya.
Pressure has been mounting on the Libyan leader after NATO stepped up its bombing campaign and suggested a "small ground force" might be deployed.
Pictures broadcast yesterday by Al Jazeera appeared to show foreign fighters assisting rebels on the ground near the besieged city of Misurata. It was not clear what nationality the fighters were, but Western politicians have insisted they will not deploy ground troops in support of the air bombardment.
The military intervention in Libya has been escalating for the past week, with Britain saying it would add "bunker-busting" bombs to its arsenal only days after attack helicopters were sent to join the fight against Gaddafi's forces.
Mr Zuma's options for a peace deal were further reduced last week when G8 leaders insisted Gaddafi must resign. The South African leader's previous peace mission to Tripoli ended in failure after Gaddafi refused to discuss stepping down. He is also facing possible prosecution by the International Criminal Court, complicating any possible deal.
Mr Zuma was welcomed by a stage-managed show of support for the regime as children lined the runway chanting in English: "We want Gaddafi."
However, as Mr Zuma was landing in Tripoli last night, five Libyan generals defected from Gaddafi's regime, appealing to fellow officers to join them in backing the rebels.
The NATO coalition has gambled that its more aggressive approach will oust Gaddafi before broader support for the military operation collapses. NATO has been accused of "mission creep" as the original UN mandate was to "protect civilians" and not to kill or remove the Libyan leader.
The introduction of bombs capable of penetrating the roof or wall of a reinforced building appeared to be aimed at frightening the regime. "We are not trying to physically target individuals in Gaddafi's inner circle on whom he relies," British Defence Secretary Liam Fox said yesterday. "But we are certainly sending them increasingly loud messages."
Meanwhile in Rome, eight Libyan army officers, including five generals, appeared at an Italian government-arranged news conference, saying they were part of a group of up to 120 military officials and soldiers who defected in recent days.
The defections come two months after that of Libyan foreign minister and former espionage chief Moussa Koussa and the resignation of senior diplomat Ali Abdussalm Treki.
One of the defecting officers, who identified himself as General Oun Ali Oun, told reporters: "What is happening to our people has frightened us. There is a lot of killing, genocide . . . violence against women. No wise, rational person with the minimum of dignity can do what we saw with our eyes and what he asked us to do."