Rebels advance on Libyan capital


Libyan rebels trying to overthrow Muammar Gadafy have pushed close to the capital Tripoli, a rebel spokesman claimed today, in the biggest breakthrough in weeks.

In neighbouring Tunisia three Libyan ministers, including the foreign minister, were holding talks with "foreign parties," the Tunisian state news agency reported.

The rebels, based in the Western Mountains region southwest of Tripoli, are fighting pro-Gadafy forces for control of the town of Bir al-Ghanem, some 80km from the capital, their spokesman said.

"We are on the southern and western outskirts of Bir al-Ghanam," said Juma Ibrahim, a rebel spokesman in the nearby town of Zintan. "There were battles there most of yesterday. Some of our fighters were martyred and they (government forces) also suffered casualties and we captured equipment and vehicles. It's quiet there today and the rebels are still in their positions.”

The rebels - backed by Nato air support - have been battling Col Gadafy’s forces since late February, when thousands of people rose up against his 41-year-rule, prompting a fierce crackdown by security forces.

The revolt has turned into the bloodiest of the Arab Spring uprisings sweeping the Middle East.

For weeks rebels in their stronghold in the east and enclaves in western Libya have been unable to make significant advances, while Nato air strikes have failed to dislodge Col Gadafy, straining the Western alliance.

Analysts say if rebels outside the capital start gaining momentum, that could inspire anti-Gadafy groups inside the capital to rise up, a development many believe is the most effective way of forcing him out.

Tunisia's TAP state news agency reported last night that Libyan foreign minister Abdelati Obeidi was on the island of Djerba, in southern Tunisia, where he was "negotiating with several foreign parties”.

It gave no details on the talks. Libya's rebel leadership, in the eastern city of Benghazi, said last week it was in indirect contact with the government, via foreign intermediaries, about a possible peace settlement.

Mr Obeidi was joined at the Djerba talks by health minister Ahmed Hijazi and social affairs minister Ibrahim Sherif, the Tunisian news agency reported.

Libyan officials frequently use Djerba, which is near the border with Libya, as a stopover on foreign trips because flights from Tripoli have ceased.

Col Gadafy says he has no intention of relinquishing his grip on power. He has said the rebels are criminals and al-Qaeda militants, and has called the Nato bombing campaign an act of colonial aggression aimed at stealing Libya's oil.

This afternoon a top UN political affairs official said the rebels now have a tentative upper hand in the fight against forces loyal to Col Gadafy.

"While we do not have a detailed understanding of the military situation on the ground, it is clear that the initiative, although halting, is now with the opposition forces, supported at times by Nato air power," Lynn Pascoe, UN under secretary-general for political affairs, told the UN Security Council.

It was the first time a top UN official suggested publicly that the tide may be turning against Col Gadafy's forces more than three months after Nato forces began bombing raids aimed at protecting civilians on the basis of a Security Council mandate.