TRIPOLI, Libya, (AP) – Hundreds of Muammar Gaddafi’s loyalists staged a show of support in the capital early Thursday, claiming the rebel insurgency is nearing its end, even as the Libyan leader’s forces have intensified their campaign to take strategic heights in a western mountain range and targeted a road that many people have used to flee the fighting.
In the main square in Tripoli, several hundred came out for a government-sponsored rally, spraying the sky with gunfire and banging fireworks and waving green flags — the iconic Gaddafi regime color. They claimed that residents of the rebel-held Benghazi to the east were holding pro-Gaddafi demonstrations, though there was no proof of any such rallies.
Much of the fighting in the western mountain range — which has forced a temporary closure of the border with Tunisa — centered around the town of Yafrin, and residents and rebel fighters said Wednesday that Gaddafi forces were using Grad missiles and rockets in their nearly monthlong siege. Residents, trapped in their homes, were cut off from food and medical supplies, they said.
In nearby Zintan, however, rebels repelled an advance by Gaddafi’s forces, killing eight and taking one prisoner, a local activist said.
To the west of the contested Nafusa mountain range, which is home to ethnic Berbers, Libyan shelling forced the closure late Tuesday of the so-called Wazen passage, which is a route people fleeing Libya have used to get to neighboring Tunisia. Jaber Naluti, a volunteer who has been trying to assist people in the area, said seven rebels were killed.
Reports from the area said that some of the shells fell inside Tunisia. Tunisian jet fighters flew over the area but didn’t fire, witnesses said. They said the passage was reopened Wednesday.
Although Gaddafi’s forces control most of the west, rebels have linked up with the minority Berbers to keep his forces out of the highest points of the Nafusa mountains, denying them a military advantage.
Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya for more than 40 years, has been using his military and militias to try to put down an uprising that began in February to try to remove him from power.
Rebel forces has taken control of much of eastern Libya, operating out of headquarters in the coastal city of Benghazi. They also have been fighting to keep the town of Misrata, the opposition’s only major stronghold in western Libya.
BelJassem, a citizen-turned-fighter from a Berber village near Yafrin, which is 75 miles (120 kilometers) southwest of Tripoli, said Gaddafi forces were shelling the town repeatedly. “We dig trenches and hide in there at night,” says BelJassem, who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals.
In Zintan, 20 miles (32 kilometers) east, rebels set an ambush for Gaddafi forces seeking to enter the city from the east, local activist Hamed Enbayah said. Rebel fighters killed eight soldiers and captured one.
Later, Enbayah said he saw large explosions he assumed were NATO airstrikes on an ammunition depot south of the city. It was unclear if government forces in the area were also targeted.
On the eastern front, rebels engaged in an hours-long firefight with Gaddafi loyalists, said Dr. Suleiman Refadi, who works at the Ajdabiya Hospital.
He told The Associated Press that the rebels killed 14 of Gaddafi’s fighters and captured 30 near the oil town of Brega, which is about 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Ajdabiya. Refadi said he treated five wounded rebels.
Refadi said the rebels were helped by NATO airstrikes, which destroyed eight vehicles carrying heavy artillery.
There was no way to independently confirm the report because journalists are not allowed beyond a checkpoint on the outskirts of Ajdabiya.
Despite what appeared to be a stalemate in fighting, the crowd early Thursday in Tripoli’s main square — mostly teenagers, youths and security officials — beeped their vehicles, hung out of their cars cheering and waved green Libyan flags and even those of the Tripoli football team al-Ahli.
Young men set off fireworks and sprayed the night sky with round after round of assault rifle fire, celebrating the alleged pro-Gaddafi demonstrations in rebel-held Benghazi. Though there was no proof of any such rallies, Libyan state television persistently flashed news about them.
The Tripoli gathering may have been organized in an attempt to reassure Libyan residents that the regime was still standing strong.
“We are celebrating our unity of citizens in east and west,” said Raid Mansour, 35, carrying his young daughter on his shoulders. “Now we all think the same: we want freedom and for Muammar Gaddafi to be victorious,” Mansour said.
Late on Wednesday, Libya’s deputy foreign minister, Khaled Kaim, denied rumors that Gaddafi’s wife and daughter had fled to Tripoli. “They are in Tripoli, they are safe,” he said. He also denied that Oil Minister Shukri Ghanem defected, saying he was in Vienna on business.
Also on Wednesday, a U.N. official appealed for global assistance for some 2 million people displaced by the fighting.
The United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Libya said some 1.6 million people inside the North African country need aid because fighting has disrupted basic services and depleted food and medical stocks.
Coordinator Panos Moumtzis, who is based in Geneva, an additional 500,000 who have crossed borders to Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the region also need humanitarian assistance. Moumtzis said he was asking international donors for $408 million to fund aid for Libya through September.
Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court prosecutors warned Libyan officials they will be prosecuted if they attempt to cover up crimes by forces loyal to Gaddafi. Prosecutors issued the warning in a letter to Libyan Foreign Minister Abdelati al-Obeidi.
The letter also formally informed him of Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo’s request for arrest warrants for Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Sanoussi. The judges will now have to decide whether to issue arrest warrants after Moreno-Ocampo on Monday accused the three of murder and persecution for allegedly ordering, planning and participating in attacks on civilians.
The letter also underscored that the court has jurisdiction in Libya because its investigation was ordered by the UN Security Council — a contention the Libyan government has rejected.