Libyan rebels said on Monday that they had wrested control from Muammar Qaddafi’s forces of “most” of the key port of Zawiyah, the last barrier on their thrust towards the capital Tripoli.
“Basically most of the town is under the control of rebel fighters,” the insurgents’ field commander Abdul Hamid Ismail told AFP, referring to the port 40 kilometres west of Tripoli.
Earlier the rebels claimed they had overrun the towns of Sorman, 60 kilometres west of Tripoli and Garyan, 50 km to the south as they pushed an assault on three fronts in western Libya.
The claimed advances, which would put opposition forces in sight of Tripoli, came as Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi railed against the rebels and Nato, amid rumours he was preparing to flee the country.
The veteran leader predicted a swift end for “the rats” and the “coloniser”, referring to the rebels and Nato, in an audio message on Libyan television, extracts of which were published by Libyan news agency JANA.
“The end of the coloniser 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,” Qaddafi declared in what the television said was a live broadcast.
“The coloniser and its agents can now only resort to lies and psychological warfare after all the wars with all the weapons have failed,” Qaddafi said as rumours circulated on Twitter and other media about his imminent departure into exile.
Much of the message, his first in several weeks, was inaudible due to a “technical breakdown”, according to the television station.
The veteran leader called on his supporters to resist and to “prepare for the battle to liberate” the towns held by the rebels.
Opposition forces had on Saturday entered Zawiyah making swift advances but became bogged down the following day when they suffered heavy casualties amid heavy shelling by loyalist troops from the centre and east of the town.
Ismail said battles for Zawiyah had raged through Sunday night into Monday morning, during which five rebels were killed, and that Qaddafi’s forces had been pushed to the eastern outskirts.
By the afternoon the fighting had died down and an AFP correspondent in Zawiyah reported the occasional sound of shelling.
Government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim meanwhile said the regime’s armed forces were capable of retaking the towns and districts where the rebels have made advances in recent days.
“Our mujahedin forces are capable of exterminating these gangs,” he told a news conference in Tripoli late on Sunday reserved for the local press.
Ibrahim acknowledged “problems” in Sorman, 60 kilometres west of Tripoli, where “clashes” were taking place. But “hundreds of volunteers” backed by the army were “handling the case of Sorman”, he said.
The government spokesman admitted that the rebels had entered Garyan in the Djebel Nefussa region “in order to spread terror but there is no need for concern.” Government forces would, he said, take back the town “in the next few hours”.
Abdulsalam Othman, spokesman for the rebels’ western military council, said Monday that Garyan as well as Sorman were in rebel hands, as was the 15 kilometres stretch of road linking Sorman to Zawiyah.
The advances, he said, meant that Tripoli’s supply lines from Tunisia are severed.
“All the entrance gates (of Sorman and Garyan) are under the control” of the rebels, he said, but admitted the “presence of an unknown number” of Qaddafi’s snipers in some residential areas.
The advance on Sorman started at dawn on Sunday, Othman told AFP in Zawiyah.
After more than 10 hours of intense battle, the rebels managed to force Qaddafi’s troops to retreat. During the fight, more than 40 fighters, some of them sub-Saharan African mercenaries, were captured.