Khartoum — The African Union Peace and Security Council (PSC) on Friday expressed "deep concern" at the events in Libya as observers raised questions on the body's slow and reserved response to the crisis in the North African country.
"The council reaffirms its firm commitment to the respect of the unity and territorial integrity of Libya, as well as its rejection of any form of foreign military intervention," Ramadan Lamamra, the AU commissioner for peace and security, at the conclusion of the PSC meeting in Addis Ababa attended by several heads of state.
It expressed its "deep concern" over the crisis in Libya which it said "poses a serious threat to the peace and security in the country and in the region as a whole" according to Agence France Presse (AFP).
"The AU has strongly condemned the disproportionate use of force," said Lamamra.
"The council took note of the readiness of the government of Libya to engage in the path of political reforms," he added.
Thousands of people are feared dead as a result of fighting between security forces and rebels who demonstrated against Gaddafi and took over parts of Libya in February.
Today, U.N. assistant secretary-general and deputy emergency relief coordinator Catherine Bragg told a briefing for the 192 U.N. member states that some 250,000 people had fled Libya for neighboring countries as a result of the fighting.
U.S. and Europe are divided on whether they should push for military options such a No-Fly zone or limited strikes. The Arab League and Gulf states have called for the first option urging the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to step in to protect the Libyan people from air attacks.
However, the AU today indicated its rejection to any foreign military intervention to halt the escalation of violence in Libya.
Gulf Arab countries had also said Gaddafi's government was no longer legitimate and France and Britain jointly called on the European Union to recognize the rebel council based in Benghazi.
But Lamamra did not want to comment on France's decision to recognize the Libyan envoys of the opposition national council.
He said that the AU decided to establish a high-level panel to monitor the crisis and work towards "the immediate cessation of all hostilities". Its members were not named yet.
"The council expressed the solidarity of the AU with Libya, and stressed the legitimacy of the aspirations of the Libyan people for democracy, political reforms, justice, peace and security as well as economic and social development."
Libya is a member of the African Union's peace and security council and was represented at the meeting by Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa.
The AU's seemingly conservative statements on Libya will likely draw further rebuke to a body described by critics as a safe-haven for despots and corrupt leaders with poor human right records.
Hadi Shalluf, a Libyan opposition figure living in Paris, dismissed the AU reaction to the events describing the Pan-African body as a "mafia organization".
"No one expects much out of the African Union anyways. They are all criminals and we [Libyans] should seek to withdraw from this organization," Shalluf told Sudan Tribune.
But some experts foresee more damage to the AU's credibility in the long run as events in Libya unfold.
Laura Seay, an Africa specialist at Morehouse College in Georgia told Voice of America (VOA) that the PSC whose other leaders include Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and the current AU chairman, Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema may be hesitant to take tough action against autocrats and dictators.
"I think the AU credibility is a bit on the line," said Seay. "Whether they are going to be able to formulate effective and coherent responses, and saying that violence against civilians is unacceptable to the African Union. That's going to make a big difference on whether they have credibility not only on the international scene, but also with their own people."
Delphine Lecoutre, a researcher with the French Center for Ethiopian Studies, points to a weak statement issued last month as an example of the Peace and Security Council's timidity in facing up to the behavior of its leaders.
"There was a Peace and Security Council meeting on Libya, which resulted in a cosmetic communiqué hardly condemning the violence in Libya and putting it in a [clever] way, loss of human life and destruction of property, but nothing regarding the political situation in the country," said Lecoutre. "It is difficult for the AU to deal with that case."
A Western diplomat told VOA that the west is looking for a more determined statement on Libya. He said anything less than suspension of Libya from the organization and possibly endorsement of a no-fly zone would be viewed as a stalling tactic.
South African president Jacob Zuma came under fire in his country over a call he made to Gaddafi last week. Libyan TV quoted Zuma as telling his counterpart that that the AU should investigate the "conspiracy" against him and the world should not believe what foreign media were saying about Libya.
Zuma's office issued a statement on Wednesday saying the Libyan TV report had been "distorted". It pointed out that South Africa had voted for UNSC sanctions on Libya and that Zuma had condemned Libya's killing of civilians while he was in France last week.
South African minister of international relations and co-operation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said on Thursday that Zuma had taken advantage of the call from Gaddafi to explain to the Libyan leader why South Africa had led the campaign for his country to be suspended from the UN Human Rights Council last week.
He had also explained why South Africa - with the two other African nations on the UN Security Council, Nigeria and Gabon - had sponsored the resolution to impose sanctions on Libya.
Gaddafi, who has billions of dollars at his disposal, is one of the AU's largest benefactors providing along with four other countries 75% of its budget.
The Libyan leader has been pushing for an African unity government for years, saying it is the only way Africa can develop without Western interference. He wanted the organization's small executive body to be granted enhanced powers and remodeled as the African Authority.