Artists' shadows loom over a mural at Benghazi airport. The artwork,… (Sergey Ponomarev, Associated…)
Reporting from Benghazi, Libya — Even as Libyan rebels reported driving government forces from another mountain town in western Libya on Wednesday, Moammar Kadafi's regime in Tripoli said it would put 21 rebel leaders on trial for treason.
The announcement of capital charges against the rebel leadership was largely symbolic. The insurgents control most of eastern Libya, far from government reach, and are making incremental advances in the Nafusa Mountains west of Tripoli, the capital.
But with the two sides for the most part locked in a battlefield stalemate, they have resorted to other means to seek political or diplomatic advantage. As government prosecutors in Tripoli announced that treason convictions could carry death sentences, tens of thousands of rebel supporters marched through the rebel stronghold, Benghazi, vowing to crush and punish Kadafi and his confederates.
Prosecutors said the accused rebels, including the leader of the Transitional National Council in Benghazi, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, would be tried in absentia. The charges "amount to treason of the homeland of Libya," government spokesman Musa Ibrahim said.
If the men are convicted, Judge Khalifa Isa Khalifa told reporters in Tripoli, the Libyan government would seek international assistance to ensure "that they are brought to justice."
Rebel spokesman Jalal Galal, who was at the citywide demonstration in Benghazi, did not immediately return calls seeking comment on the charges.
The protesters in Benghazi were buoyed by rebel claims that they had taken the mountain town of Qawalish early Wednesday. At the same time, rebel supporters mocked the indictments issued by Kadafi, who was indicted himself on charges of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court last week.
"Kadafi is desperate; he knows the end is near," said Yusef Zaidi, a rebel supporter who said he escaped from Tripoli after rebels drove government forces from most of eastern Libya in February.
Also indicted by the ICC were the Libyan leader's son Seif Islam Kadafi and intelligence chief Abdullah Sanoussi.
The Nafusa Mountains, near the Tunisian border, have been under opposition control for months. Rebels at the eastern end of the range pushed Kadafi's forces out of Qawalish, southeast of the rebel-controlled towns of Kikla and Qala, Arab news reports said. Kikla was captured by rebels in late May.
Volunteer fighters grouped into 15-man teams have been trying for weeks to dislodge Kadafi's forces from Qawalish, from which they mounted rocket and artillery attacks on the rugged rebel-controlled territory.
Control of Qawalish would allow rebels to advance due east toward Gharyan, a major military garrison town as well as a hotbed of anti-Kadafi sentiment. It is about 60 miles south of the capital on the nation's main north-south highway.
A number of the rebel fighters in the Nafusa Mountains hail from Gharyan and hope to return to their hometown.
"No one told me to come and do this," Abdul Taif, 19, of Gharyan and a first-year student of engineering in London, said in a recent interview in Kikla. "I am here to help liberate my country."
Since late March, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has attacked military and command and control targets under a U.N. Security Council resolution designed to protect civilians from government attack.
NATO has flown more than 14,000 sorties, the organization said Wednesday, including 134 on Tuesday, and has destroyed 2,700 military targets. Among targets hit Tuesday were four tanks and two military vehicles near Gharyan, NATO said.
Even so, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Kadafi's forces were still potent.
"Without NATO there would be a massacre," he said. "Kadafi would be free to use his tanks and missiles on towns and markets. We will not let that happen."
Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Beirut contributed to this report.