DAFNIYAH, (Reuters) – Libya’s rebels have traded heavy artillery fire with Muammar Gaddafi’s forces near the western city of Zlitan as they tried to take government-held territory east of the capital Tripoli.
The city, 160 km (100 miles) from Tripoli, is the next major town on the Mediterranean coastal road to the capital from the rebel stronghold of Misrata. Capturing it would greatly advance the rebels’ strategy of cutting off the capital from all sides.
A Reuters team in Dafniya, on the outskirts of Misrata, said rebels fired artillery and rocket launchers. Rebels said they aimed to hit Libyan tanks and munitions in Naimah, near Zlitan, but inexperience and indiscipline has plagued their campaign.
“We had a strategy to finish everything today, but some of the fighters think it’s a game. They shot when they weren’t supposed to shoot,” a rebel unit commander called Mohammed Ali told Reuters, after taking cover from a mortar barrage.
NATO planes resumed bombardments of Tripoli on Friday with six explosions sending columns of black smoke into the sky.
Rebel advances towards Tripoli have been slow, and weeks of NATO strikes pounding Gaddafi’s compound and other targets have failed to bring an end to his 41-year-old rule.
Rebels are fighting on two other fronts: in the east around the oil town of Brega and in the Western Mountains southwest of Tripoli. They have made important gains in the past few weeks, but remain far from seizing their ultimate prize.
NATO SEES “POSITIVE SIGNS”
Gaddafi vowed to defeat NATO.
“This is the first time they are facing an armed nation of millions. The alliance will be defeated,” he said in an audio speech on Libyan TV on Friday. “We are in our country and we are determined to stay and defend it.”
In Misrata, rebel spokesman Ahmed Hassan said 10 civilians had been killed and another 40 wounded when Gaddafi’s forces shelled the city on Friday, a claim which could not be verified.
The rebels have said they will not attack Zlitan because of tribal sensitivities, but are recruiting fighters from the town and waiting for the residents to rise up against Gaddafi.
NATO military spokesman Wing Commander Mike Bracken said in a briefing that west of Misrata there were “some positive signs that civilians are unifying against the Gaddafi regime” and that “for the time being pro-Gaddafi forces appear unable to strongly counter the anti-Gaddafi forces’ incremental advances.”
Another NATO bombardment struck in the region of Gzayha, on the Tunisian border, resident Mohamed Nagez said.
APPEAL TO U.N.
Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Ali Al-Mahmoudi told a late night news conference Libya would appeal to the U.N. security council to stop the NATO bombing.
He said one airstrike had hit the Al Fateh University.
“It has become clear to us that NATO has moved on to deliberately target civilian buildings. Who is killing civilians now? It is indeed NATO,” he said.
He planned to call U.N. secretary general Ban ki-Moon early on Saturday to call for an extraordinary session to investigate.
The rebellion erupted four months ago in the eastern city of Benghazi. NATO intervention has been going on for nearly 13 weeks, and strains are beginning to show within the alliance.
Juma Ibrahim, a rebel spokesman in the Western Mountains town of Zintan, said Gaddafi loyalists were massing in Gharyan, about 120 km (90 miles) southwest of Tripoli — and besieging the world heritage-listed old city of Ghadames, some 600 km southwest of the capital on the Tunisia and Algerian borders.
“(They) … have destroyed some Islamic historic ruins … palaces and forts located in the city’s old quarter,” he said.
Accounts from Ghadames could not be independently verified.