Fighting rages as Libya rebels close in on Tripoli
DVBP350 4 W 1052 LBY /AFP-VM20
Fighting rages as Libya rebels close in on Tripoli
by Imed Lamloum
ATTENTION - ADDS Mussa Ibrahim quotes, Maltese ship ///
TRIPOLI, Aug 21, 2011 (AFP) - Explosions and gunfire rocked Tripoli on Sunday as a months-long uprising reached the Libyan capital with rebel leaders insisting they are near to ending Moamer Kadhafi's almost 42-year rule.
An operation dubbed "Mermaid" is underway in the capital with the goal of isolating the veteran leader and forcing his surrender or departure, a rebel spokesman told AFP.
With rebels claiming to have seized three key towns and saying they are advancing on Tripoli from the west, the veteran leader urged supporters to "march by the millions" to liberate cities held by "traitors and rats."
Intermittent gunfire crackled in Tripoli on Sunday morning after four strong blasts were heard shortly after 4:00 am (0200 GMT) as NATO warplanes flew overhead, an AFP journalist said.
The targets were not immediately identifiable but witnesses reported clashes in several districts between insurgents and Kadhafi supporters, namely in the eastern neighbourhoods of Soug Jomaa, Arada and Tajura.
Government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim admitted there were "small clashes" that lasted 30 minutes but stressed the pro-regime volunteers and Kadhafi forces repelled insurgents who had "infiltrated" the capital.
"The situation is under control," Ibrahim said on state television.
He later told reporters "thousands" of professional and volunteer soldiers were defending the capital against rebels, whom he accused of carrying out "34 executions" and raping a number of women in the western coastal town of Sorman.
Spokesman Ahmed Jibril said "Operation Mermaid" is a joint effort between the Benghazi-based rebel National Transitional Council, insurgents fighting in and around Tripoli and NATO forces.
"The operation is also in coordination with NATO," Jibril said.
Witnesses said residents of Tajura, Soug Jomaa and Fashlum east of Tripoli took to the streets late Saturday, setting tyres ablaze while calls urging the population to rise were made from the loudspeakers of mosques.
The Libyan authorities meanwhile sent text messages on mobile phones urging people to take to the streets across the country "to eliminate the traitors... with weapons."
Rebel fighters told an AFP correspondent that they were battling Kadhafi loyalists in the Gadayem forest some 24 kilometres (about 15 miles) west of Tripoli which they hoped to reach later Sunday.
"We want to go to Tripoli today," one of the fighters, Bassam, said, adding that NATO forces had been attacking the forest all night.
Another rebel, Mohammed, later said: "We have taken the forest."
The claims could not be independently verified.
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.
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.
In his eastern stronghold of Benghazi, rebel chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil claimed that victory was within reach, six months after the insurgency was launched.
"We have contacts with people from the inner circle of Kadhafi," the chairman of the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) said on Sunday. "All evidence (shows) that the end is very near, with God's grace."
His words prompted celebrations in rebel-held towns, including Sabratha, 50 kilometres west of Tripoli, and in Benghazi, where people crowded in front of television sets to follow the news, AFP correspondents said.
"Goodbye Kadhafi," they chanted in the rebel-capital, Benghazi.
There has been a flurry of rumours that Kadhafi was prepared to flee Libya and Abdel Jalil predicted a "catastrophic" end for the veteran leader and his inner circle, along with turmoil in Tripoli.
But the Libyan leader remained defiant.
"We have to put an end to this masquerade. You must march by the millions to free the destroyed towns" controlled by rebels "traitors" and "rats," the embattled Kadhafi said in an audio message carried on state television Sunday.
"These scum enter mosques to cry 'God is great.' They are dirty. They are defiling the mosques," Kadhafi said.
Seif al-Islam echoed his father.
"We have a long breath. We are in our land and in our country. We will resist for six months, one year, two years... and we will win," he said in remarks broadcast on state television, which said they were made a day earlier.
Kadhafi accused French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country is helping lead NATO-coordinated air strikes on regime targets, of recruiting the rebels as "agents" to steal Libya's oil wealth "to win the upcoming elections" in France.
"But the Libyan people will not allow France to take its oil or leave Libya to the hands of traitors," he said.
Another sign of the regime's frailty came as fighters said former premier Abdessalam Jalloud, a popular figure who fell out of favour with the Libyan strongman in the mid-1990s, had defected and joined their ranks.
Italian Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa confirmed the reports.
Jalloud piled the pressure on Kadhafi in statements broadcast Sunday on Al-Jazeera news, calling on his tribe to disown him, saying the "tyrant" Kadhafi will go. "The noose has tightened around him."
Meanwhile, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in an interview published in the daily Il Mattino that the Libyan conflict appears to be drawing to a close.
And Tunisia, Libya's neighbour to the west, decided to recognise the rebel National Transitional Council as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, the news agency TAP reported.
"The political decision has been taken," a government source confirmed.
A Maltese ship which was due to evacuate foreign nationals from Tripoli on Sunday came under fire and was forced to retreat to sea, Poland's foreign ministry said.
AFP 211251 GMT AUG 11