ZAWIYAH, Libya, (Reuters) – Libyan rebels said they had seized a second strategic town near Tripoli within 24 hours, completing the encirclement of the capital in the boldest advances of their six-month-old uprising against Muammar Gaddafi.
A U.S. defense official also said yesterday that Gaddafi’s forces had fired a Scud missile for the first time since the uprising against his rule began six months ago, but it landed in the desert and injured no one.
The missile was fired on Sunday morning from a location about 50 miles (80 km) east of Sirte, Gaddafi’s home town, and landed east of the coastal oil town of Brega, the official said in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity.
It was unclear what Gaddafi might have been targeting, the official said, without speculating about the motives behind a missile launch that came in the wake of recent rebel gains that have increased pressure on the Libyan leader.
In a barely audible telephone call to state television overnight, a defiant and apparently isolated Gaddafi called on his followers to fight rebels he referred to as “rats”.
Gaddafi’s forces fired mortars and rockets at the coastal town of Zawiyah a day after rebels captured its centre in a thrust that severed the vital coastal highway from Tripoli to the Tunisian border, a potential turning point in the war.
Rebels said they captured the town of Garyan south of Tripoli yesterday. That could not be immediately verified, but if true it would cut off the other main route to the capital.
“Garyan is fully in the hands of the revolutionaries,” a rebel spokesman, Abdulrahman, said by telephone.
“Gaddafi has been isolated. He has been cut off from the outside world.”
Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim acknowledged in remarks broadcast on state television that rebel fighters were in Garyan. “There are still armed gangs inside the city. We are able to drive them out,” he said.
A U.N. envoy arrived in neighbouring Tunisia, where sources say rebels and representatives of the government have been holed up on the island resort of Djerba for negotiations. The envoy, Abdel Elah al-Khatib, told Reuters he would meet “Libyan personalities residing in Tunisia” to discuss the conflict.
Talks could signal the endgame of a civil war that has drawn in the NATO alliance and emerged as one of the bloodiest confrontations in the wave of unrest sweeping the Arab world.
Rebels may still lack the manpower for an all-out assault on Tripoli, but are hoping their encirclement of the capital will bring down Gaddafi’s government or inspire an uprising. In the past, however, they have frequently failed to hold gains, and a fightback by Gaddafi troops could yet break the siege.
Gaddafi’s government denies talks with rebels are taking place. His spokesman dismissed reports of negotiations about the Libyan leader’s future as part of a “media war” against him.
“The leader is here in Libya, fighting for the freedom of our nation. He will not leave Libya,” spokesman Ibrahim said.
A senior Gaddafi security official, Nasser al-Mabrouk Abdullah, arrived in Cairo with nine relatives, telling Egyptian officials he was on holiday. Rebels hoped that would signal more defections from a crumbling government.
Residents of the capital also remain defiant.
Makhjoub Muftah, a school teacher who has signed up as a gun-toting pro-Gaddafi volunteer, like many others seemed to think a rebel advance into Tripoli was a remote possibility.
“I wish they would march into Tripoli. I wish,” he said, daring the rebels. “They will all die.”
After months of only incremental gains in their struggle against Gaddafi, rebel advances in the last two days have transformed the battle, beginning with the capture of the town of Zawiyah which cut Tripoli’s main lifeline road west.
Reuters reporters in the town say Gaddafi’s forces still hold an oil refinery and have sniper positions on rooftops, but the highway linking Tripoli to the Tunisian border is shut.
Nevertheless, a U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the advance in Zawiyah could not yet be seen as a “game changer”, stressing that the rebels did not have complete control of the town.
At a hospital, medics said six rebels had died and 26 were wounded. They also said firing by Gaddafi forces killed three civilians. One man was shot in the head and a 15-year-old girl died of shrapnel wounds.
A woman lay in the hospital unconscious with shrapnel wounds to her neck. Her brother, who gave his name as Waleed, stood over her holding a drip, his T-shirt drenched in blood. He said Gaddafi’s forces were “shooting at us indiscriminately”.
Zawiyah’s residents have risen up twice in the past, only for their revolts to be crushed by Gaddafi loyalists. But this is the first time rebel fighters advancing from the mountains in the south have reached the town, incorporating it into a front that now cuts off the vital coast road.
Gaddafi’s green flag still flew at the coastal highway’s border crossing with Tunisia yesterday, but the steady traffic that once supplied Gaddafi-held areas had slowed to a trickle. Passengers said the road was only open for about 70 km (44 miles), a third of the way to Tripoli.