Libya's rebels poised to attack as Kadhafi stalls
Libya's rebels sought to consolidate their progress in the east on Thursday and ramped up for a pre-Ramadan offensive in the west as Moamer Kadhafi's refusal to quit blocked a political solution.
The insurgents said they have chased the bulk of Kadhafi's eastern army from Brega, a key oil refinery town on the front line between the rebel-held east and the mainly government-held west.
Loyalists holed up among oil installations in the town's northwest have been encircled, and fighting eased on Thursday as the rebels said their week-old offensive had been slowed by hundreds of scattered land mines.
"It has been more quiet today and yesterday, Kadhafi's troops (inside the town) are not shooting back so much. We are not sure whether it is because they are running out of ammunition or it is something else," said rebel spokesman Mohammed Zawi.
But progress was being slowed by demining.
"We plan to advance slowly, clearing the land, creating good defensive positions," he said, adding the rebels suffered no fatalities in a day for the first time since the offensive began.
In the west, rebels in Bir Ayad in the plains below the Nafusa Mountains exchanged sporadic fire with Kadhafi troops in Bir al-Ghanam further north, despite a NATO request for the insurgents to suspend the next phase of their planned assault on Tripoli.
The rebels fired a salvo of rockets at around 10:00 am (0800 GMT) that was answered by rocket and cannon fire from Kadhafi's forces, an AFP correspondent reported.
Rebel commanders said they were refraining from using cannon fire to avoid civilian casualties as the loyalist troops were holed up in residential areas of Bir al-Ghanam.
The insurgents say their immediate target is the strategic crossroads town of Al-Assabah, which would open up the road to the government garrison town of Gharyan, a key gateway to Tripoli.
But NATO, which still aims to destroy Kadhafi military assets in the area, has not yet given them the green light, a rebel fighter in Bir Ayad told AFP.
In the desert hamlet of Gualish, the rebels are beginning to experience what fighting would be like during Ramadan as temperatures soar around 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit).
During Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, the endurance of even the hardiest volunteers will be tested by desert battle without food and water during the daytime fast observed by the faithful.
In Baghdad, Britain's minister for international security strategy said NATO-led forces would keep up their air strikes against Kadhafi's troops and military equipment even if they were deployed against Libyans during Ramadan.
"There will be no let-up in the coalition activities to protect the people of Libya in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973," Gerald Howarth told reporters at the British embassy.
"It would be highly irresponsible to give Kadhafi any excuse to inflict the kind of brutality that he has displayed in the past," he said.
NATO said that on Wednesday aircraft under its command had hit two rocket launchers and three armed vehicles around Misrata and 13 targets in and around Zliten the next town to the west on the road to the capital.
Rebel military leaders from Misrata on Wednesday asked French President Nicolas Sarkozy for extra arms to help them overrun Tripoli within "days", a member of their delegation said.
On the diplomatic front, France has accepted that Kadhafi could stay in Libya if he quits politics under a ceasefire deal.
But asked about that during a visit to Spain on Thursday, senior Libyan rebel Mahmud Jibril said it is up to Libyans to decide if Kadhafi can remain in the North African country if he gives up power.
"I think the most important question for us is that Kadhafi leave power, this is the first step," Jibril told a news conference with Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez.
"When we get that step secured first then we can move to the next phase, deciding where he can stay and what kind of arrangements are needed. Who is going to decide is the Libyan people themselves," he added.
"If he is not ready to step down then we are talking about cosmetic reforms within the current regime. That is a waste of the blood that has been spilled over the past five months. We are not interested in that."
Jibril is the diplomatic chief of the rebel National Transitional Council.
Libya has been wracked by a civil war since a violent uprising against Kadhafi, in power for more than four decades, swept the country five months ago.
© 2011 AFP