BENGHAZI: Libya’s rebels were pusher further on Wednesday to isolate Tripoli in what their leaders have confidently predicted is a decisive phase in a six-month civil war that could end within weeks.
Further turning the screws on Moammar Qaddafi’s regime, they moved toward a western town that links the capital and Sirte — Qaddafi’s hometown and a stronghold for his military.
"The scouting teams of the revolutionaries reached the outskirts of Al-Heisha after expelling Qaddafi forces," the rebel military command said early Wednesday.
Al-Heisha lies roughly 70 kilometers (45 miles) south of Misrata and 250 kilometers (150 miles) from Tripoli, near two key crossroads that link loyalist-held territory in the west with that in the oil-rich Sirte basin.
It was the latest in a series of battlefield operations to cut off the capital, which the rebels hope will force defections from the regime and spark a Tripoli uprising against the nearly 42-year-old regime.
Mansur Saif Al-Nasr, the National Transitional Council (NTC) envoy to Paris, said on Tuesday that the rebels also had full control of Zawiyah, a vital oil port just west of Tripoli that links the capital with Tunisia.
"We are entering a decisive phase. We hope to celebrate the final victory at the same time as the end of (Muslim holy month of) Ramadan" at the end of August, he said.
But while rebels claimed to control of "most" of Zawiyah, Qaddafi forces on Tuesday shelled the city, wounding several civilians, an AFP reporter witnessed.
Funerals were held for 23 others who rebels said were killed the previous day.
Earlier a defiant Qaddafi predicted victory: "The end of the colonizer (NATO) is close and the end of the rats is close," he said in an audio message on Libyan television.
The regime has denied it is in danger, insisting that its forces can retake towns and districts captured by the rebels in past days.
In some parts of the country Qaddafi’s fighters showed little sign of acquiescing.
On Libya’s eastern front, rebels admitted they had suffered relatively heavy losses battling loyalist forces around oil installations in the town of Brega.
"Since yesterday (Monday), we have had 15 victims on the Brega front," said spokesman Mohammed Zawiwa, adding the fighting was continuing in one of the town’s residential areas.
Meanwhile, the political war of words continued.
Qaddafi received backing from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
During a telephone call late Monday, Chavez and Ahmadinejad "discussed the situation created by the imperialist aggression against Libya and Syria, and agreed to… increase their efforts to achieve peace," the Venezuelan foreign ministry said in a statement.
But in Benghazi, NTC head Mustafa Abdel-Jalil sought to encourage regime defections, promising a fair trial for some and amnesty for others.
But the invitation did not extend to Qaddafi and his closest allies, naming Qaddafi’s son Seif Al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah Al-Senussi.
"Anyone who is accused, or has an (International Criminal Court) arrest warrant in his name will fall under international jurisdiction and we will not be able to accept immunity or amnesty for them."
Earlier this week, Qaddafi’s Deputy Interior Minister Mabrouk Abdallah flew from Tunisia to Egypt on a private plane with nine relatives, a Cairo airport, but it was not clear if he was defecting.
Regime spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said merely that he had gone to the Egyptian capital for "personal reasons."
Dozens of high-ranking officials have turned their back on Qaddafi since the pro-democracy uprising erupted, inspired by the so-called Arab Spring.
Abdel-Jalil also ruled out negotiations with the regime and vowed a swift transfer of power once the veteran strongman is ousted.
He denied suggestions that members of the NTC had held talks in Tunisia with representatives of the Qaddafi regime.
"There are no negotiations, either direct or indirect, with the Qaddafi regime," said NTC chief Abdel-Jalil.
Rebel officials acknowledged there were some Libyan figures taking part in the talks, but insisted that they did not represent Benghazi.