Libyan rebels push towards Tripoli on two fronts

Rebels in Misrata push west, at least 14 fighters killed; NATO says it has no confirmation Gaddafi seeking way out.

Libra rebels 311 Reuters (photo credit: REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal )
Libra rebels 311 Reuters
(photo credit: REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal )
AL-QAWALISH, Libya - Rebel fighters seized a village south of the Libyan capital and another group advanced towards Tripoli from the east on Wednesday in the biggest push in weeks towards Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's main stronghold.
Rebels firing their rifles into the air in celebration poured into the village of Al-Qawalish, just over 100 km (60miles) southwest of Tripoli, after a six-hour battle with pro-Gaddafi forces who had been holding the town.
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Rushing through an abandoned checkpoint where government troops had left tents and half-eaten bread in their rush to get away, the rebels ripped down green pro-Gaddafi flags, said a Reuters reporter in the village.
Farther north, on Libya's Mediterranean coast, rebels pushed westwards from the city of Misrata, taking them to within about 13 km of the center of the neighboring town of Zlitan, where large numbers of pro-Gaddafi forces are based.
But they came under heavy artillery fire. Doctors at the al-Hekma hospital in the centre of Misrata, where bodies are brought from the front line, said 14 fighters had been killed on Wednesday and about 50 were injured.
The advances came as reports proliferated that Gaddafi --under pressure from a five-month uprising against his rule, sanctions and a NATO bombing campaign -- was seeking a deal under which he would step down.
His government has denied any such negotiations are underway, and NATO's chief said he had no confirmation that Gaddafi was looking for a deal to relinquish power.
A senior Libyan official told Reuters on Wednesday there were signs a solution to the conflict could be found by the start of August, though he did not say what that solution might involve.
The rebel advances followed weeks of largely static fighting. Heavily armed Gaddafi forces still lie between the rebels and Tripoli, and previous rebel advances have either bogged down or quickly turned into retreats.
But with Al-Qawalish now in rebel hands, they can advance northeast to the larger town of Garyan, which controls the main highway leading into the capital. Libyan state television reported that NATO hit targets in Garyan on Wednesday.
A commander of a rebel unit which led the attack on Wednesday, Maktar Lakder, told Reuters rebel forces would advance on Garyan within a week.
The rebel attack on Al-Qawalish began at dawn. Fighters fired rockets and mortars, sending cries of "Allahu Akbar!" or "God is greatest!" echoing through groves of olive, almond and fig trees with each outgoing blast.
Gaddafi's forces responded with intermittent volleys of Grad tactical surface-to-surface rockets. Clouds of black smoke came from the hillsides where the incoming rounds exploded.
Six hours later, the rebels were in the village. About 400 fighters fanned out through the streets, which were otherwise deserted. A group of them broke into a shop and took bottles of soda to quench their thirst.
The handful of government troops who were taken prisoner were loaded into the backs of pickup trucks. In the back of one truck were three dark-skinned prisoners. Two of them told Reuters they were from Ghana and one said he was from Mali.
Libya's rebels have a particularly strong dislike for sub-Saharan Africans fighting with Gaddafi's forces because they say they are mercenaries. However, many of them say they were forced to take up arms.
When their truck slowed down, rebel fighters walking alongside hit the prisoners with their fists but the unit commander, Lakder, intervened to stop them.
The previous big advance in the region was last month, when rebels pushed 20 km (12 miles) north from their base in the Western Mountains to the town of Bir al-Ghanam.