Misrata: Libyan rebels made fresh gains on the western front on Tuesday, pushing back forces loyal to leader Muammar Gaddafi in a string of clashes that brought them closer to the capital Tripoli.
Insurgents also sought to extend an advance in the east begun on Sunday, setting their sights on the oil town of Brega in a bid to extend their control over the region, epicenter of the four-month rebellion against Gaddafi’s four-decade rule.
Insurgents seized the town of Kikla, southwest of Tripoli, after government troops fell back, and pushed several kilometers (miles) west of their Misrata stronghold to the outskirts of government-held Zlitan, Reuters photographers said.
Pro-Gaddafi forces retreated about nine kilometers (five miles) from Kikla and rebels were setting up defensive positions, Reuters photographer Youssef Boudlal said.
In Brussels, NATO spokesman Wing Commander Mike Bracken said rebel forces were making steady advances in the west and the Berber highlands, and appeared to “control the ground from Wazin to Jadu and Zintan as well as the town of Yaffran.
“In the east … there has been little movement from either side and no significant changes to the intensity of activity.”
The rebel thrust to Kikla, some 150 km (90 miles) from Tripoli, came after weeks of relative deadlock between the rag-tag army and government forces, though air strikes by NATO have taken their toll on Gaddafi’s better-equipped troops.
Nevertheless, rebels in the west said attacks on a Misrata oil refinery were causing them fuel supply problems. And a NATO leaflet drop warning of helicopter strikes prompted some rebels to retreat from their newly captured positions outside Zlitan.
“We came back because of the leaflets from NATO. I hope there is some coordination between the fighters and NATO. Gaddafi’s forces are far away. Is it logical that NATO has no idea we took those positions?” Mohammed Genei, 31, local commander told Reuters. “NATO dropped the leaflets right on us.”
A leaflet obtained by Reuters showed a picture of a helicopter and a burning tank. “When you see these helicopters, it means it is already too late for you,” it said in Arabic. “There is no place to hide. If you continue threatening civilians, you will be killed.”
A NATO official said the alliance did drop leaflets warning of the possibility of attack by attack helicopters, but said this was west of Misrata, and closer to Zlitan.
However, even without the threat of NATO attack, the rebels said they would not attack Zlitan, citing tribal sensitivities. Instead they would wait for the local inhabitants to rise up.
Despite the successes on the battlefield the insurgents could struggle to maintain their momentum after a rocket attack on Monday badly damaged a refinery near Misrata port, potentially saddling them with serious fuel supply problems.
An engineer on site said it was unclear how long it would take to repair the refinery.
“HOTSPOT FOR CLASHES”
NATO reported skirmishes around Brega and Ajdabiyah but said the east of Libya was relatively quiet, but said there were reports of a rebel offensive on Zawiya, an important oil producing port 30 km (20 miles) west of Tripoli.
“This area appears to a hotspot for pro- and anti-Gaddafi clashes,” Bracken told the briefing in Brussels.
But a Zawiyah resident, who could only be named as Mohamed, told Reuters by phone on Tuesday that it had since gone quiet, with neither side having advanced much since the skirmish.
The main highway west from Tripoli to Tunisia, which had been closed because of the fighting, appeared to have reopened.
NATO said it struck an armored vehicle armed with anti-aircraft guns east of Tripoli on Tuesday as well as a multiple rocket launcher and another anti-aircraft system.
In a statement the alliance also said it hit an armed pickup truck, a tank, a multiple rocket launcher and an armored vehicle in Misrata on Monday night.
State television reported the alliance had bombarded targets in Al Jufrah in the center of the country.
South African President Jacob Zuma accused NATO on Tuesday of abusing a U.N. resolution authorizing it to protect Libyan civilians in order to pursue “for regime change…assassinations and foreign military occupation.”
NATO defense chiefs met in Belgrade on Tuesday to discuss the mission, after Defense Secretary Robert Gates accused some European allies of failing to pull their weight.
A senior NATO commander appeared to raise questions about the alliance’s means to intervene in Libya long-term.
“The Libyan crisis came as a surprise to I guess everybody … We are conducting this operation with all the means we have, and the best we can. If the operation were to last long, of course, the resource issue will become critical,” General Stephane Abrial told a NATO conference in Belgrade.
“But at this stage, the forces engaged do have the means to necessary conduct the operation. If additional resources are needed this will be a political decision. I am confident that this operation will be successful in implementing the U.N. Security Council resolution,” Abrial said.
The head of Britain’s navy spoke on Monday of the strain on British forces imposed by Libya operations and foresaw the need for tough decisions. But a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron was more upbeat on Tuesday, saying the mission would go on “as long as we choose to continue it.”
Tunisia flew an F-5 warplane and a helicopter along its border with Libya, fanning tensions, after Libyan troops fired several rockets into Tunisia.
The explosions, close to rebel territory along the border in Libya’s Western Mountains, caused no damage or injuries.
“VIOLATION OF SOVEREIGNTY”
A rebel spokesman in Zintan, in the insurgent-held Western Mountains range southwest of Tripoli, said the town had been quiet on Monday after heavy bombardments on Sunday.
Gaddafi has said the rebels are criminals and al Qaeda militants. He has described the NATO military intervention as an act of colonial aggression aimed at grabbing Libya’s oil.
Western governments say they believe it is only a matter of time before Gaddafi’s 41-year rule ends under the weight of NATO military intervention, sanctions and defections.
NATO member Canada became the latest country to recognize the rebel council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people on Tuesday, a day after German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle did so on a visit to their headquarters in the second city of Benghazi.
France, Qatar, Italy and the United Arab Emirates have already recognized the Transitional National Council.
Libya’s foreign ministry, in a statement, condemned the Westerwelle visit as an “a blatant violation of national sovereignty.”
Adding to diplomatic pressure on Gaddafi, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged African leaders to abandon him.
Gaddafi has styled himself the African “king of kings” and over the years won support from many African states in exchange for financial help and generous gifts.
“Your words and your actions could make the difference,” Clinton told the African Union in the Ethiopian capital. Zee News