TRIPOLI, Libya — Rebels in Libya’s western mountains said they have advanced and are battling Moammar Khadafy’s forces in a strategic town southwest of the capital, stepping up pressure against government troops on a second front.
The rebels’ assertion of an advance into the outskirts of the town of Bair al-Ghanam, some 50 miles from Tripoli, follows weeks of intense fighting in the Nafusa mountains in which opposition forces have slowly pushed Khadafy troops back toward Tripoli.
Libya’s rebels control the eastern third of the country and pockets in the west, including a number of Nafusa mountain towns.
The bulk of the fighting in recent months has been focused on front lines to the east of Tripoli. But a push by rebels from the Nafusa mountains could force Khadafy to commit more troops to the southern and western approaches to the capital.
A rebel military spokesman in the Nafusa mountains, Gomaa Ibrahim, said opposition fighters and government troops have been fighting since early yesterday on the periphery of Bair al-Ghanam.
Guma el-Gamaty, a spokesman for the rebels’ National Transitional council, said the town is significant because it is only 19 miles south of the city of Zawiya, a key western gateway to the capital and home to a crucial oil refinery.
Opposition fighters seized control of Zawiya in March before government troops crushed rebel forces there to retake the city. Fighting broke out in the city again earlier this month, briefly cutting access to the vital coastal highway that passes through Zawiya. The route links Tripoli with the Tunisian border and is one of Khadafy’s last main supply lines.
In Tripoli, Khadafy’s government remained defiant. Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said Khadafy is in “high spirits’’ and remains in day-to-day control of the country. He insisted Khadafy will remain in Libya, but wouldn’t confirm that the leader is still in the capital.
“Khadafy is here, he is staying. He is leading the country. He will not leave. He will not step down,’’ Ibrahim told reporters in Tripoli, challenging the rebels and the NATO-led coalition giving them air support. “If they want to continue the fight, we are ready.’’
Moussa said the government has distributed 1.2 million weapons to supporters in the west of the country to defend themselves.
EgyptEgypt’s military rulers are committed to a quick transition to civilian administration, two leading US senators said yesterday after meeting the general who heads the ruling council.
John F. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, and John McCain, an Arizona Republican, visited Egypt at the head of a US business delegation. They said it was in America’s national security interests to see the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak succeed.
They said Washington was not interested in dictating policy to Egypt. Instead, the focus is on finding ways to help the Arab world’s most populous nation boost its economy and address the needs of its people. The two senators met Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s former defense minister who now heads Egypt’s Supreme Military Council.
McCain, the ranking Republican on the Armed Forces committee, said Tantawi “again indicated his absolute commitment to a transition to a civilian government at the earliest possible time after the elections have taken place.’’
Kerry, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the military rulers are “very anxious to get out of the business of governing, and they want to go back to doing what they were doing.’’
YemenHundreds of thousands of antigovernment protesters rallied across Yemen yesterday, demanding that President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s powerful sons and other members of his inner circle leave the country.
Saleh is in Saudi Arabia receiving treatment for severe wounds from an attack on his palace early this month. His two sons, Ahmed and Khaled, command military units and have played a crucial role in protecting their father’s regime and keeping his grip on power in his absence.
Yesterday, protesters in the cities of Sana, Ibb, Taiz, and others, chanted slogans calling for Saleh to step down and for his sons and other family members to flee. Saleh has reneged three times on signing a deal put forward by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council that calls for him to step down and hand power to his vice president. In return, Saleh would get immunity from any prosecution.
Yemen’s political crisis began in February with protests by largely peaceful crowds calling for Saleh’s ouster after nearly 33 years in power. A crackdown has killed at least 167 people, according to Human Rights Watch.