Kadhafi forces in retreat as rebels advance on Tripoli

DVBP187 4 W 0740 LBY /AFP-VI67 Libya-conflict-Gadayem lead Kadhafi forces in retreat as rebels advance on Tripoli by Charles Onians =(Picture+Video)= ATTENTION - UPDATES with rebels advance, ADDS quotes, colour, CHANGES dateline /// GADAYEM, Libya, Aug 21, 2011 (AFP) - Libyan rebels advanced quickly eastwards towards Tripoli on Sunday, seizing weapons and tanks in the town of Gadayem after bloody clashes with retreating forces loyal to leader Moamer Kadhafi. "The rebels have taken the forest," of Gadayem, a strategic area 24 kilometres (15 miles) west of the entrance to the capital, which they hoped to reach later on Sunday, said a rebel who gave his name only as Mohammed. Rebels, backed by tanks and anti-aircraft guns, broke past snipers hidden in the forest and engaged Kadhafi supporters Sunday morning. The boom of rockets and mortars echoed around the wooded desert, palls of smoke rising in the distance against the almost constant rattle of automatic gunfire, said an AFP correspondent traveling with the rebels as they came under sniper attack. "There was general chaos as the rebels tried to pinpoint the sniper positions and returned fire. When the rebels went to find the snipers they were gone," he said, adding that the rebels were in the eastern outskirts of Gadayem, which is surrounded by woods. The rebels said they were expecting fierce resistance from a key military position known as the "Kilometre 27" checkpoint, 27 kilometres from the centre of the embattled Libyan capital. "We want to go to Tripoli today," one of the fighters, Bassam, said, adding that NATO forces had been attacking the forest all night. A rebel doctor, Yusef Mustafa el-Deak, said that four insurgents died in the battle on Sunday, while another who declined to be named spoke of 10 rebels who had minor gunshot wounds. Other rebels said they had killed four foreign mercenaries. This claim could not be independently verified but an AFP correspondent at the scene saw the burned remains of two Kadhafi vehicles. Dr Ashraf Dekna, wearing a green surgical outfit and carrying an AK-47, the weapon of choice for rebels, all seized from Kadhafi's armouries or taken from captured or killed loyalist troops. "I must protect myself. He (Kadhafi) makes me carry a weapon because he made me a target," Dekna said. "Thanks God I've only treated minor injuries today, but there was a freedom fighter killed with an RPG down the road," he said, pointing to a smouldering wreck with a charred and limbless torso entombed within. "I feel optimistic, we will go to Tripoli. He (Kadhafi) stole our money, our jobs, our lives. This is the first time I feel proud of my nationality. We are proud of the rebels. We will win." Dentist and freedom fighter Mohammed Sula told AFP: "We're three kilometres from 27 kilometre bridge, a major military checkpoint. Kadhafi is finished tonight. "Rebels rebel against a system. In Libya there is no system," he said, explaining why the fighters prefer to be called freedom fighters. "We're attacking Tripoli on three main roads, from the south, east and west. We're moving forward quickly but Kadhafi's troops are still on our left and right (to the north and south)." The rebels advance, those on foot sticking close to walls that offer some cover from snipers concealed in the forest, while others hurtle down the main road to Tripoli in cars and pick-ups with heavy weapons mounted on the back. Bearded fighter Nasser al-Masri is going through some papers he has found on the roof of a shop from where the rebels were being attacked, now abandoned. "We've found ID papers here where there were Kadhafi snipers on the roof. They are residency papers he gave to Africans so that they can fight in exchange for the right to live and work here. They are mercenaries." A rebel pick-up hurtles back westwards, a wounded Kadhafi fighter lying in the back. He will be treated and interrogated, one of the rebels says. In the wake of their advance, rebel bulldozers move sand onto the road to afford protection and slow down a potential counter attack by kadhafi's forces The rebels have been moving from the centre of Zawiyah, one of three strategic towns on the road to Tripoli which insurgents claim to have captured over the past two days. The other two are Brega and Zliten. cjo/afq AFP 211129 GMT AUG 11