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Rebel offensive secures major supply route in west

Libyan rebels seized three small towns in western Libya Thursday, securing a major supply route near the Tunisian border. The pre-Ramadan offensive was the biggest push in the area since fighting broke out five months ago.


AP - Hundreds of rebels in western Libya launched a broad offensive against government forces Thursday, seizing three small towns and advancing on others to secure a major supply route near the Tunisian border, rebel spokesmen said.

Four rebel fighters were killed and several wounded in what the spokesmen described as the biggest push in the area since the start of Libya’s civil war five months ago. They said rebels captured 18 government soldiers, as well as weapons and ammunition.

Libya’s civil war has been largely deadlocked, despite shifting front lines, and rebels have been unable to score a major breakthrough on the battle field.

Rebels control Libya’s eastern third and most of the Nafusa mountains in the west, as well as the western port city of Misrata. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, entrenched in the capital of Tripoli, is clinging to the rest of the territory.

In Thursday’s fighting, hundreds of rebels descended from their stronghold in the Nafusa mountains at dawn and advanced in several areas along a stretch of more than 100 kilometers (60 miles), said Badees Fessato, a rebel spokesman.

He said opposition forces drove government troops out of the small towns of Jawsh and Ghezaya, and moved toward the towns of Badr and Takut.

Jawsh is about 150 kilometers (95 miles) east of the Tunisian border and located along a main road between Tunisia and Tripoli. Ghezaya is closer to the Tunisian border.

One of the objectives of the push is to drive back pro-Gadhafi forces from the rebels’ main supply route between the Tunisian border and the Nafusa mountains, he said.

Rebels seized control of the Tunisian-Libyan border closest to the Nafusa area in April, but Gadhafi’s forces have repeatedly tried to retake it and have shelled the supply road.

In a separate development, the rebels said they had detained their own top military commander for questioning on suspicion his family might still have ties to regime.

Rebel military spokesman Mohammed al-Rijali said the commander, Abdel Fattah Younes, was taken from his operations room near the front to the main rebel stronghold, the eastern city of Benghazi, for interrogation.

Younes, who served as Gadhafi’s interior minister but defected at the beginning of the fighting, was being questioned about suspected secret ties of his family to the Libyan regime, said two rebel security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue with the media.

Thursday’s offensive came a day after Britain recognized Libya’s main opposition group, the National Transitional Council, as Libya’s sole representative, dealing another blow to the isolated Gadhafi regime.

However, the rebels appear to be increasingly divided over what would be an acceptable way of ending the civil war.

France, Britain and the U.S. have indicated they would accept an arrangement in which Gadhafi retires, but is allowed to stay in Libya, and the rebel chief, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, has also suggested he would consider the idea.

But the UK organizer for the rebel council, Guma El-Gamaty, said Thursday that the plan is unworkable and shouldn’t even be considered.

With the possibility of a political deal seemingly off the table, fighting was bound to continue.

Abdul-Jalil said this week that the rebels would not lay down their weapons during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins next week and is a time of increased religious observance.

Gadhafi has also signaled defiance in audio messages in recent days. In a message released on state TV late Wednesday, Gadhafi demanded that the western mountain rebels give up their weapons.

“Surrender, you traitors! The people of Libya are pushing forward (to the western mountains) - choose to surrender or die,” Gadhafi shouted.

He said that without relying on NATO bombings, the rebels would not have been able to hold the mountains. NATO, acting under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians, has been bombing regime-linked targets since March 31.

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