TRIPOLI: Muammar Qaddafi urged Libyans on Monday to free the country from "NATO and traitors", as rebels in the west began to strangle a major lifeline to his capital.
Despite denials, men from Qaddafi’s government were reported to be holding secret talks with rebels at a hotel in Tunisia, on a possible resolution of the 6-month-old civil war.
A dramatic advance on Saturday, witnessed by Reuters, won the rebels control of the town of Zawiyah, 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli on the coast, enabling them to halt food and fuel supplies from Tunisia to Qaddafi’s stronghold in the capital.
Tripoli was not under immediate threat, but rebel forces are now in their strongest position since the uprising against 41 years of Qaddafi’s rule began in February, controlling the coast both east and west of Tripoli.
"The fall of Zawiyah would be the biggest milestone for the rebels since the liberation of Misrata. It’s a real morale booster for them and implies a sense of momentum," said analyst Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute in London.
"It’s a triple blow to Qaddafi as it is home to the regime’s only functioning oil refinery and may also in the medium-term allow the rebels to benefit from sales of oil; it also lies over his big supply line and blocks an important route from the Tunisian border to the capital."
But a rebel fighter said Qaddafi’s forces still controlled the Zawiyah oil refinery on the coast.
Zawiyah civilians killed
Medics on the outskirts of the city said sniper and mortar fire by Qaddafi forces killed three civilians. One man was shot in the head and a 15-year-old girl died of shrapnel wounds.
Waleed, brother of a woman with shrapnel wounds, said Qaddafi forces "have made life very hard for us in the past few months. They’ve gone from house to house arresting people and now they’re shooting at us indiscriminately."
Libyans fleeing south in their cars said they had heard fighting in a place called Harsha, between Tripoli and Zawiyah.
"I heard fighting there today on our way here," said one man who declined to give his name. He said rebels clashed with Qaddafi’s security forces inside Tripoli on Sunday night.
"There is no gasoline, no electricity, food prices are up 300 percent. We just cannot live like this anymore," he said.
The rebels have help from NATO warplanes which, under a UN mandate to protect civilians, are bombing Qaddafi’s army.
Qaddafi’s latest exhortations to his supporters came in a speech early on Monday delivered over a poor quality telephone line and broadcast by state television in audio only. It was his first since rebels launched their biggest push in months.
"The Libyan people will remain and the Fateh revolution (which brought Qaddafi to power in September 1969) will remain. Move forward, challenge, pick up your weapons, go to the fight for liberating Libya inch by inch from the traitors and from NATO," said the 69-year-old Qaddafi.
"The blood of martyrs is fuel for the battle," he said, in what Libyan television said was a live speech. "The end of colonialism is near. The end of the rats (rebels) is near, as they flee from house to house while the masses hunt them down."
Fighting spreads west, south
On the Tunisian resort island of Djerba on Sunday, security staff turned Reuters away from a hotel where a source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the talks between rebel and government representatives were being held.
In Tripoli, government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim blamed denied the report as "part of a media war against us".
"The leader is here in Libya, fighting for the freedom of our nation. He will not leave Libya," Ibrahim said.
Qaddafi’s characteristically defiant speech followed a day of action across a swathe of northwest Libya during which rebels said they had seized the town of Surman, next door to Zawiyah.
There was also fighting in the town of Garyan that controls the southern access to Tripoli, and shooting was heard near the main Libyan-Tunisian border crossing.
Rebels from the Western Mountains region to the south advanced into Zawiyah late on Saturday, and early on Sunday, about 50 rebel fighters milled around the central market.
If the various rebel units in the west act in concert they can field a force of a few thousand fighters.
Additional reporting by Michael Georgy near Garyan, Ulf Laessing in Ras Jdir, Tunisia, Tarek Amara in Tunis, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers and David Brunnstrom in Brussels.