A Libyan worker chats with two rebels as they patrol an oil refinery controlled… (Giulio Petrocco, Associated…)
Reporting from Cairo — Dramatic gains by rebels in recent days suggest for the first time in the 6-month-old uprising that Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi is losing his grip on power as emboldened opposition forces push closer to the capital, Tripoli.
The Libyan battle map is strung with Kadafi defeats. The rebel advance into Zawiya, about 30 miles west of Tripoli, has cut supply routes for the longtime strongman's army. Opposition fighters have further squeezed Tripoli by taking Gharyan, about 50 miles to the south. And about 85 miles east of the capital, insurgents have seized the strategic coastal town of Zlitan.
Late Saturday, Libyan rebels said that, in coordination with NATO, they had launched their first attack on Tripoli. Journalists at a hotel in the capital reported hearing heavy gunfire, explosions and nighttime bombing runs by North Atlantic Treaty Organization aircraft.
A couple hours after the rebels said they had attacked Tripoli, state television ran what appeared to be a live audio message from Kadafi. He did not appear onscreen and sounded as though he were calling in the message on a poor phone line. Kadafi condemned the rebels as traitors and "vermin" who are tearing Libya apart.
"Libyans wanted to enjoy a peaceful Ramadan," news services quoted Kadafi as saying. "Instead they have been made into refugees. What are we? Palestinians?"
Government spokesman Musa Ibrahim also appeared on Libyan television to deny that there was an uprising in Tripoli.
The claims from both sides could not be independently verified. If the rebels did attack Tripoli, it would be the first time since the revolt began.
"It is clear that the situation is moving against Kadafi," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman told reporters Saturday after a meeting in the rebels' de facto capital, the eastern city of Benghazi. "The opposition continues to make substantial gains on the ground while his forces grow weaker."
But it is unlikely that the poorly armed rebels, who are prone to strategic mistakes, can win the capital without a protracted and bloody siege. Although they have been helped by defections of top Libyan officials and by NATO airstrikes that have battered Kadafi's army, the man who has ruled Libya for four decades appears to be defiantly concentrating his firepower in Tripoli.
"The end is very near," rebel leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil told reporters Saturday. He said of Kadafi: "I expect a catastrophic end for him and his inner circle."
The rebels claimed to have gained control of the oil city of Port Brega, about 420 miles southeast of Tripoli. Site of a refinery complex, the city in recent months had been the scene of heavy fighting as control swung back and forth between Kadafi's forces and the rebels. Hostilities also spread beyond Libya's borders as armed men in pickup trucks believed to be Kadafi supporters briefly clashed with border guards in Tunisia early Saturday.
Rebels also suggested that the Libyan leader was losing pockets of the capital, which has seen an exodus of frightened residents.
"The situation in Tripoli is like a man in his late stages of cancer and waiting," said Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, spokesman for the rebel army. "Kadafi's troops are not in command of the city anymore. Residents broke the wall of fear and started carrying out operations and fighting against the troops … using Molotov cocktails and homemade bombs and other weapons that were sneaked to Tripoli."
Bani's assertion too could not be independently confirmed, but the eccentric and verbose Kadafi has recently kept an uncharacteristically low profile as NATO airstrikes have rumbled in and around the capital. His government released an audio recording last week of Kadafi telling his countrymen that "the blood of martyrs is fuel for the battlefield."
He added: "The end of the colonizer is close and the end of the rats is close. They [the rebels] flee from one house to another before the masses who are chasing them."
But events on the ground have shifted against him as rebels hoist flags and show off captured tanks. The Libyan leader was surrounded by insurgents on the south, east and west and cut off from the Mediterranean Sea by a NATO naval blockade. There have been conflicting reports in recent days about secret negotiations between the rebels and the Kadafi government. Sensing that the momentum now belongs to them, however, the rebels have publicly scoffed at such talks.
Kadafi's inner circle is also shrinking. Abdel-Salam Jalloud, once a close confidant, fled the country and was reportedly in Tunisia. His departure came along with the defections of Oil Minister Omran Abukraa and former Interior Minister Nassr Mabrouk Abdullah, who landed with his family this month in Cairo.
The fighting has intensified as rebels pound closer to the capital. Street battles, artillery barrages and the crack of sniper rifles echoed through Zawiya and the oil refinery on its outskirts. In Zlitan, where 32 rebels were killed and 150 wounded, Al Jazeera news channel reported: "The rebel fighters took heavy losses, they came under fire from artillery and rockets but they moved forward.... The Kadafi troops pulled out, leaving ammunition and a lot of equipment behind."
Feltman, the U.S. assistant secretary of State, told a news conference in Benghazi: "It is time for Kadafi to go, and we firmly believe that his days are numbered."
Amro Hassan of The Times' Cairo bureau and Times wire services contributed to this report.