AL-QALAA, Libya, July 7 – Libyan rebel fighters launched offensives on two fronts to the south and east of Tripoli on Wednesday in the biggest push in weeks towards Muammar Gaddafi’s stronghold in the capital.
In the Western Mountains southwest of Tripoli, hundreds of fighters advanced towards the government-held village of Al-Qawalish, while on the Mediterranean coast east of the capital, rebels pushed westwards from the city of Misrata.
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 that any such negotiations are under way, but a senior Libyan official told Reuters on Wednesday there were signs that a solution to the conflict could be found by the start of August.
Western Mountains rebels traveling in Toyota pick-up trucks arrived at first light to launch their attack on Al-Qawalish. Many had anti-aircraft guns welded onto the truck beds. Several tanks were also brought to the front on lorries.
The rebels began firing rockets and mortars at dawn, and 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.
The rebels’ aim was to push the 10 km from the town of Al-Qalaa to Al-Qawalish. The fighters were pushing south-east, away from the capital, but taking Al-Qawalish is strategically important because beyond it, further to the east, is the larger town of Garyan which controls the main highway north to the capital.
After several hours, the rebels had advanced a couple of kilometers towards Al-Qawalish and NATO warplanes could be heard in the sky. Ambulance workers said they had treated about six people with injuries.
Near Misrata, rebel commanders told Reuters they had pushed 20 km west overnight, taking them to within about 130 km of Tripoli.
The new rebel positions were coming under intense bombardment from Gaddafi’s forces who were using mortars, artillery and Grad rockets.
Meanwhile, Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim in an interview with Reuters in Tripoli on Wednesday, said a solution to the conflict could be found before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins early in August. He did not give any details about what that solution might involve, however.
“There are signals that the crisis will find a solution in the coming weeks. We will do whatever possible so that our people will spend Ramadan in peace. So we hope that a solution will be possible before the month of Ramadan,” he said.
“Currently the key hurdle to a solution is the NATO military campaign, and we hope that our friends in the African Union organization will do whatever possible to convince it to stop its aggression against our people.”