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Libyan rebels advance on Tripoli

Opposition fighters face fierce battles about 20 miles west of the capital. Kadafi dismisses claims of rebel gains.

August 21, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman | Los Angeles Times
  • Supporters of the Libyan rebels gather at the Libyan Embassy in Tunis, Tunisia.
Supporters of the Libyan rebels gather at the Libyan Embassy in Tunis, Tunisia. (EPA )

Reporting from Cairo — Rebels pushing toward the Libyan capital, Tripoli, encountered heavy gunfire as army forces attempted to stall an insurgent offensive that has gained swift momentum and threatens Moammar Kadafi's shrinking stronghold, according to media reports.

Opposition forces advancing from the town of Zawiya faced fierce battles about 20 miles west of Tripoli. The firefights followed a night of gunfire and explosions across the capital. Insurgents claimed the violence was the beginning of an uprising, but government officials said the Libyan army had put down attacks by armed gangs.

Al Jazeera said rebels had seized control of an eastern suburb of Tripoli and that there was sporadic fighting across the city. Other reports indicated that hundreds of insurgents were facing little resistance as they approached the capital.

The reports could not be independently confirmed and rebels have often been repelled by government soldiers after initial advances.

"The collaborators with the West are moving from one town to the next claiming control, but they are not in control, they are escaping like rats," Kadafi said in an audio broadcast on Libyan television earlier today. "People are kissing my picture. I am their leader, I am their father."

Insurgents, helped by steady barrages of NATO air strikes, have won territory in recent days, encircling the capital from the south, east and west.

"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 the poorly armed rebels, who are prone to strategic mistakes, may face a protracted and bloody siege around the capital. 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 pickups 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, an influential tribal figure and once a close confidant, fled the country and was reportedly in Tunisia. He called Kadafi a "tyrant" and urged Tripoli to revolt. 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."

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