Fighters extending rebel control secured Libya's main border crossing into Tunisia and pressed loyalists in southwest Tripoli on Friday while preparing to attack Moammar Kadafi's tribal homeland.
In Tripoli, rebels from the countryside and local militiamen maintained a tight grip as they hunted for Kadafi loyalists and the leader himself. The man who ruled Libya for 42 years has disappeared since his Bab Azizia compound was sacked this week.
Rebels aided by NATO airstrikes seized nearly all of the capital after a six-month guerrilla war, setting off jubilation but also raising questions about the ability of the transitional authorities to govern. Security woes and supply shortages plague Tripoli, and the Transitional National Council, the interim body based in the eastern city of Benghazi, has yet to assert control.
Rebels said they had wrested control of Ras Ajdir, the main border crossing between Libya and Tunisia, and a key supply line to the capital, a claim confirmed by Tunisia's official news agency. Capturing the dusty border town is a major victory for Kadafi's opponents. If rebels manage to secure the road between Ras Ajdir and the capital, they will be able to alleviate shortages of food, medicine and fuel.
Rebels were reportedly preparing to launch a major offensive against the coastal city of Surt, the base of Kadafi's tribe and a bastion of support for the leader. According to news accounts, the two main tribes in the city rejected a proposal from the rebels to negotiate a surrender. North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces struck areas in and around Surt.
Rebels also battled suspected government loyalists in the southwestern Tripoli district of Salahadin, which long has been known for its fealty to Kadafi. He showered its poor inhabitants with perks that stoked class and tribal resentments, which are now coming to the fore.
Rebels pounded a three-story building housing suspected snipers, spraying it with antiaircraft fire that appeared to be also intended as a warning to other residents.
A NATO airstrike hit a military base once commanded by Kadafi's son Khamis. Later, the site was looted, adding to the supply of weapons suddenly circulating in Libya.
At a second border crossing from Tunisia, in Wazin, 100 miles southwest of Ras Ajdir, Libyans were crossing back into their home country with stores of gasoline, water and foodstuffs, all in short supply at home. One pickup's load included melons, a microwave oven, an infant car seat and bottles of water and gasoline.
"I just can't wait to get back to Tripoli," said Aymen Bensalen, 25, a medical student who was undeterred by reports of street battles. "Life will improve, we hope. God willing."
"I just pray this is a better Libya," said Ibrahim Ali, 60, a pilot who was returning with his family.
But others still were heading in the opposite direction, nervous about the fighting that continued in parts of the country.
The road northeast to the capital hugs the flanks of the parched Nafusa Mountains, whose fighters were among the first to enter Tripoli. The rebel tricolor flies from stores and shops, and in the town of Nalut, a banner hanging from a wall declares: "Thanks, NATO, you've saved our Lives."
On the plains below, destroyed tanks and troop carriers litter the road, visual evidence of NATO's power. People cheered and honked their horns as rebel gun trucks, with weapons and armor ingeniously welded to their beds, sped by in triumph.
Rebels also continued to hunt for Kadafi, searching cars and following up on clues to where he might be.
"It would be a problem if after six months and all that blood he got away," said Ahmed Frewan, a rebel fighter from the city of Misurata. "But if he fled to Algeria or Venezuela, that would also be good because the war would stop."
Transitional National Council spokesman Mahmoud Shammam said Kadafi's' capture would be "symbolically important" but not vital to the rebel cause.
Libya is a huge country geographically, he said, and therefore "Kadafi can disappear in any place. You need all the help you can get and all the help of God to find him. We want badly to find him. But we're going to start rebuilding from today, not from the day Kadafi is captured."
Daragahi reported from Tripoli and McDonnell from Wazin.