TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI (Reuters) – Libyans entered the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Monday with no let-up in the five-month conflict after Muammar Gaddafi sought to divide a rebellion threatening him on several fronts.
Explosions rocked the capital, Tripoli, on Monday as the NATO coalition vowed to press on with a U.N.-backed bombing campaign which is meant to protect civilians but is also supporting rebels trying to oust Gaddafi.
Holding firm despite growing international isolation and sanctions, Gaddafi sought to play on potential divisions by calling on tribes and soldiers in rebel-controlled areas to rise up and free their cities.
His son said fighting would go on until the rebels lost.
“Regardless of whether NATO leaves or not, the fighting will continue until all of Libya is liberated,” Saif al-Islam told displaced families in TV footage aired on Monday. He has not been seen speaking in public for several weeks.
The government had previously said that it would be ready for ceasefire talks if NATO halted its air strikes.
After a torrid week in their eastern bastion of Benghazi, where they had to fight off a pocket of Gaddafi loyalists and saw their military commander assassinated, the rebels have sought to overcome divisions and retake the initiative.
Last week’s killing of General Abdel Fattah Younes still overshadowed fighting at the front line after his family criticized the rebel leadership’s handling of the murky case, which they said smacked of betrayal and conspiracy.
The rebels said they were preparing to resume an attack on Tiji on Tuesday after a failed push to capture the last government stronghold in the Western Mountains.
They also advanced on Zlitan, 160 km (100 miles) east of Tripoli, and Brega, a key oil town protected by some 3,000 heavily armed Gaddafi forces.
Businesses in Benghazi have pledged to keep sending food and supplies to the front line to sustain a rebellion that now controls about half the country but has struggled to make a significant breakthrough in weeks.
Shopping in Benghazi, Fayza, a middle-aged woman, said: “Prices have gone up and there is a bit of cost-cutting because of delayed salaries, but despite that we are happy. This Ramadan feels different, there is freedom this time.”
FRANCE RELEASES FUNDS
The rebels received a financial boost on Monday after France announced it would place $259 million in unfrozen Libyan assets at the disposal of the Transitional National Council (TNC).
The TNC intends to use the funds for humanitarian purposes, the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Despite controlling vast swathes of territory and winning broadening international recognition, splits within the rebel camp are raising concerns over instability and sustained trouble even if the rebels end Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.
Talks to end the conflict have slipped into the background after a U.N. envoy came and went last week without signs of progress.
Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez gave the Libyan leader some rare international support, saying “Long live Muammar Gaddafi” in a televised address as he read a letter from the Libyan leader thanking him for his strong support.
“You know the magnitude of the conspiracy against my country,” he read. “We hope to continue with the strength of that support.”
The high cost and lack of food, coupled with soaring temperatures and fears over loved ones on the front line, will hang over this year’s Ramadan, when families and friends typically gather at night to break a daytime fast.
Amid religious music marking the start of Ramadan, Libyan state television broadcast a statement by Defense Minister Abubakr Yunus Jaber urging members of the army who joined rebels in the east to rejoin the fold and “liberate Benghazi.”
NATO dropped leaflets over Tripoli on Monday calling on loyalist troops to stop fighting.
CLASHES IN BREGA
Benghazi has been awash with speculation over the killing on Thursday of Younes, a former Gaddafi security minister who defected to the rebels early in the war. He and two aides were shot by assailants after he was summoned from the front line.
Some suspect his execution was ordered by rebel leaders for treason, many say he was killed by Gaddafi spies, and others suggest a rebel splinter group had acted alone.
Muatsem Abdel Fattah Younes told Reuters that if a committee set up to investigate his father’s death failed to make headway, the family would seek international help.
“Unfortunately, the Transitional National Council is acting very negatively with this case until now,” he said.
In an apparent effort to avert a feud, rebels named Suleiman al-Obeidi, a member of Younes’ tribe, as acting military chief.
The Western Mountains front line was quiet on Monday, but nearer to Benghazi, a rebel spokesman said they had pushed Gaddafi’s heavy weapons out of reach of their forces around Brega but the rebels were not in control of the oil town.