ROME: Eight Libyan army officers appeared in Rome Monday, saying they were part of a group of as many as 120 military officials and soldiers who defected from Moammar Gadhafi’s side in recent days.
The eight officers – five generals, two colonels and a major – spoke at a news conference organized by the Italian government.
Al-Arabiya television said 120 Libyan officers had arrived in Rome. The Libyan ambassador to Rome, who has also defected from Gadhafi, said only the eight present at the hastily called news conference were in the Italian capital.
The eight officers said they defected in protest at Gadhafi’s actions against his own people, saying there had been a lot of killing of civilians and violence against women.
British-based Libyan opposition activist and editor Ashour Shamis said he was aware of reports from opposition sources that eight high-ranking Libyan officers including four generals had defected and were in Rome.
“This will create its own momentum against Gadhafi, increasing the pressure on him,” he said. He said he had no word on the defection of as many as 100 officers.
Noman Benotman, another opposition activist who works as an analyst for Britain’s Quilliam Foundation think tank, said he had heard that many officers had defected, without elaborating.
“The army officers feel they are being watched all the time. They feel uncomfortable because they feel a lack of trust. So at the first chance of defection they took it,” he said.
Meanwhile, South African President Jacob Zuma flew into Tripoli Monday to try to broker a peace deal with Gadhafi, just hours after NATO’s secretary-general said the Libyan leader’s “reign of terror” was coming to an end.
Zuma was met by a host of dignitaries, not including Gadhafi himself.
Zuma’s walk down the red carpet at Tripoli airport was accompanied by a band and children chanting “We want Gadhafi!” in English while waving Libyan flags and pictures of the leader.
NATO warplanes have been raising the pace of their airstrikes on Tripoli, with Gadhafi’s Bab al-Aziziyah city center compound being hit repeatedly.
Journalists escorted into Bab al-Aziziyah after Zuma’s arrival found a group of around 160 African visitors to Libya chanting pro-Gadhafi slogans and waving flags of nations including Chad, Niger and Ghana, in an apparent show of pan-African unity.
Britain said Sunday it was to add “bunker-busting” bombs to the arsenal its warplanes are using over Libya, a weapon it said would send a message to Gadhafi that it was time to quit.
“Our operation in Libya is achieving its objectives … We have seriously degraded Gadhafi’s ability to kill his own people,” NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a NATO forum in Varna, Bulgaria.
“Gadhafi’s reign of terror is coming to an end. He is increasingly isolated at home and abroad. Even those closest to him are departing, defecting or deserting,” he said.
Britain and other NATO powers are ratcheting up the military intervention to try to break a deadlock that has seen Gadhafi hold on to power despite a rebel uprising against his four-decade rule and weeks of airstrikes.
U.S. Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the Joint Operations Command at Naples, declined to comment on whether NATO would put forces on the ground but suggested a small force may be needed to help the rebels once Gadhafi’s rule collapses.
He told the Varna forum, “I would anticipate that there might be a need at some point to unfold a small force … a small number of people there to help them in some way.”
Libyan state television reported that NATO airstrikes killed 13 people in Zlitan Monday, the next town westwards on the coast road towards Tripoli from Misrata.
State news agency Jana also reported that NATO airstrikes hit the Tiji area, near the Western Mountain town of Nalut, overnight, causing “human and material losses.”