Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Ali Al-Mahmoudi (front right) walks with South African President Jacob Zuma (front left) upon his arrival at Mitiga Airport in Tripoli. Zuma flew into Tripoli on Monday to try to broker a peace deal with Muammar Gaddafi.

Tripoli - South Africa's president huddled with Libya's embattled ruler on Monday, a rare visit by a head of state whose mission appeared to be to try to persuade Muammar Gaddafi to step down.

President Jacob Zuma was greeted with all the requisite fanfare by Gaddafi’s beleaguered regime. Dozens of Gaddafi supporters, brought in by bus for the welcoming, waved green Libyan flags and chanted slogans denouncing the Nato bombing campaign against Libyan government targets.

Nato temporarily lifted its no-fly zone over Libya to allow Zuma's South African air force plane to land at the main military air base next to Tripoli.

In Rome on Monday, an indication that Gaddafi’s regime is losing support came from eight top Libyan army officers, including five generals, who defected from Gaddafi’s military. They appealed to their fellow officers to join the revolt.

Several senior officials, including at least three Cabinet ministers, have abandoned Gaddafi during the uprising that began in February. Even so, he clings tenaciously to power, and the military units still loyal to him are far superior to the forces available to the rebels.

One of the officers, General Melud Massoud Halasa, estimated that Gaddafi’s military forces are now “only 20 percent as effective” as what they were before the revolt broke out in mid-February, and that “not more than 10” generals remain loyal to Gaddafi.

General On Ali On read an appeal to fellow army officers and top police and security officials “in the name of the martyrs who have fallen in the defence of freedom to have the courage” to abandon the regime.

The general, wearing street clothes like his fellow defectors, denounced both “genocide” and “violence against women in various Libyan cities”.

The Zuma visit came during relentless Nato bombing runs on Tripoli and other parts of the country, aimed at weakening Gaddafi’s military and giving the outgunned rebels a chance in their battle against the longtime ruler.

Though relations between Gaddafi and the African Union have been strained, Zuma has joined other African leaders in accusing Nato of overstepping its United Nations mandate to protect Libyan civilians and calling for an end to the airstrikes.

Several dozen Libyan soldiers wearing red and beige uniforms stood in rows to greet the South African president, and a military band played. Zuma was quickly swept away in two armoured jeeps by heavily armed security officers.

Zuma's meeting with Gaddafi at his Bab al-Aziziyah compound was attended by only two other people, according to a Libyan official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not at liberty to discuss the talks. No other details were disclosed. Zuma did not speak to reporters.

Zuma’s official mission was to try to resuscitate a mediation effort by the African Union for a ceasefire. Zuma headed an African Union mission to Tripoli in April to try to promote the initiative, but it did not produce results - further tarnishing the image of the organisation.

In April, Gaddafi said he would accept the truce but quickly ignored it and resumed his attacks, while the rebels rejected the cease-fire out of hand because it did not include Gaddafi’s exit from power. Since then many ceasefire efforts have failed for similar reasons. - Sapa-AP