BENGHAZI: The battle for the Libyan oil town of Brega switched from the desert to intense street fighting, as veteran leader Moamer Qaddafi vowed never to quit and fresh blasts rocked Tripoli.
Rebel forces re-entered Brega — putting them within sight of a major strategic victory — but said they had not yet managed to wrest control of the town from Qaddafi’s troops, who have held it since April.
"Some small groups have made it inside, but we do not control the whole (town) yet," said Mohammed Zawi, a spokesman for the rebel forces, late Sunday.
He also dismissed rumors that Qaddafi troops had abandoned the town altogether. "It is now close fighting," he said, indicating a new phase in the four-day rebel campaign. There was no way to verify his comments as reporters are being prevented from reaching the front line.
Until now heavy artillery had set the tenor of the battle, but mortars and rockets appear to have given way to heavy machine guns — a more useful weapon for fighting at closer quarters.
But that did little to stem the bloodshed.
Three rebel fighters were killed and 96 wounded on Sunday according to medical staff.
That toll brought to 15 the total number of fighters killed and 274 the number of wounded since the battle for Brega began on Thursday.
In Brussels, a NATO statement said its forces were monitoring "the dynamic situation across the country, including around Brega."
Nestled on the Gulf of Sirte, Brega is made up of three areas, a residential area in the east, a major oil facility in the west and an old town in between.
A small rebel force had entered Brega from the northeast late on Friday, before pulling back for NATO air strikes and for fellow fighters to the south to beat back Kadhafi’s troops.
After a series of military gains were washed away by hasty and badly coordinated advances, rebel commanders said they are anxious to make sure they have a unified offensive line before their final push.
In its latest operational update released on Monday, NATO reported hitting "nine armed vehicles, two armored fighting vehicles and a command and control node" in the Brega area.
A series of blasts also rocked Tripoli on Sunday after Qaddafi vowed never to go into exile, with at least 13 explosions heard before and just after 01:00 am (2300 GMT Saturday).
"They are asking me to leave. That’s a laugh. I will never leave the land of my ancestors or the people who have sacrificed themselves for me," Qaddafi said in a loudspeaker address to supporters in Zawiyah, west of the capital.
"These rats have taken our people hostage in Benghazi, Misrata and the western mountains, using them as human shields," Qaddafi said of the rebels’ eastern stronghold and their two enclaves in the mainly government-held west.
"Five million armed Libyans will march on them and liberate the occupied towns as soon as the order is given."
Southwest of the capital, rebel fighters exchanged rocket and machine gun fire with Kadhafi’s forces early on Sunday both in the Nafusa Mountains and in the plains below around Bir Ayad, a key junction on the road to Tripoli, AFP correspondents reported.
The rebels’ senior commander for the region, Mokhtar Farnana, said they were consolidating their grip on the territory already held for fear of a loyalist counter-attack.
"The most important thing is to keep hold of the territory we have captured and to make it safe before making further attacks," Farnana told AFP.