Rebels in Libya's western Nafusa mountain range were less than 50 miles from the nation's capital Thursday and edging closer to their first significant victory outside their mountain stronghold, pounding the small town of Bir Ghanam with artillery and rockets.
Rebels were firing on government positions from a cement factory in the foothills of the mountains as NATO warplanes, including at least one Apache helicopter, aided in the battle by striking government troops at least three times.
The rebels had already advanced far from their home turf toward heavily populated areas controlled by Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi's forces, and they expressed fears that civilians would be caught in the crossfire once a battle to the finish began.
Bir Ghanam appeared to have been cleared of civilians. But some fighters said they feared a bloodbath in the relatively large city of Aziziya, halfway up the road to Tripoli, and possibly the key city of Gharyan, which rebels were approaching from the eastern edge of their stronghold.
"The power of Kadafi doesn't depend on his weapons," Col. Mokhtar Milad Fernana, commander of rebel forces in western Libya, said in an interview Thursday. "He uses civilians as shields to protect himself."
Although the fighting on the front in eastern Libya has ground to a stalemate, rebels in the mountainous region in the west appear to be gaining momentum.
Those rebels say they are using fresh recruits, many from other parts of the country, and weapons they've captured to fight Kadafi's forces. They say they are attacking on three fronts: Bir Ghanam, which lies on flatlands at the northern edge of rebel territory; to the west beyond the town of Kikla toward Gharyan; and to the south toward the military base at Tawama.
They have transformed a long stretch of highway into a makeshift runway, with markings for airplanes, and have already landed one plane as a test.
The rebel forces were bolstered by the recent capture of a large caches of government weapons near Zintan, where their unified command is based. However, Fernana denied that his men had received weapons from France, as claimed by French officials Wednesday.
"Whoever gave us these arms should come here and tell us where he put them," he said.
One fighter in Bir Ghanam carried what appeared to be a new Belgian-made assault rifle — a type increasingly common among rebels — that he said came from a crate of weapons labeled "Qatar," the Arabian Peninsula kingdom that wholeheartedly supports the effort to oust Kadafi.
Fernana, a former commander of Libyan ground forces, defected to the rebel cause after the February uprising against Kadafi's 42-year rule. He has commanded the rebel forces in the west since he was elected leader of the region's various military councils March 15. He said he was in constant contact with the mountain rebel commanders and met weekly with them in Zintan. His forces, he said, were solidly under the authority of the rebel leadership in Benghazi.
He said the effort to oust Kadafi would be more effective if he had direct access to NATO forces, which under their mandate are supposed to carry out attacks to protect civilians from harm. Fernana said he currently calls in grid coordinates for airstrikes to Benghazi. "This is a problem because sometimes it takes NATO hours to get the information," he said. "I would like to have a direct line."
Still, Fernana predicted that rebel forces would reach Tripoli "in three weeks," a claim that did not appear to square with battlefield realities. Two rebel fighters were killed and four wounded during a failed attempt to advance toward government positions beyond Kikla, Libyan opposition websites reported.
As the rebels try to advance on cities and towns, they fear putting civilians in harm's way.
"Aziziya is going to be very difficult to push forward," said Sami Mohammad Saadi, a rebel spokesperson. Government fighters "will force the families to stay inside their homes."
Rebels entering the recently captured city of Rayana said they were forced to make a tactical retreat after they discovered that buildings they thought were empty were filled with terrified civilians barred from leaving their homes.
Kadafi's men leveled parts of the once-rebel-held city of Zawiya on the Mediterranean coast after retaking it in March, and residents suspected of supporting the opposition reportedly went missing. Rebels appear to have a better track record on captured territory, though one resident of Rayana said victorious insurgents had ordered out of town all residents there suspected of supporting Kadafi.
"I want to be honest with you, and I can't say it in front of the [rebels], but the people who supported Kadafi they forced them to leave their homes and go to Tripoli, and some of them they arrested," said the resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of angering the rebels standing nearby.