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Jul 7 2011 4:44PM
Libya rebels battle in plains south of Tripoli
Muammar Gaddafi, Picture: Getty Images
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Rebels battling Muammar Gaddafi pressed ahead on Thursday with day two of a NATO-backed offensive after seizing a desert hamlet south of Tripoli and reported gains in their push along the coast from the east.

NATO said the rebels appear to have taken the initiative in the west, but Kadhafi's forces are regrouping and rearming.

Reinforced with French weapons parachuted into Libya and backed by NATO-led air strikes aimed at destroying Gaddafi's frontline armour, the rebels attacked regime forces in the plains southwest of the capital.

The area targeted by that offensive is seen as strategic as it also features the garrison city of Gharyan, a government stronghold in the Nafusa mountains.

"We waited before launching this assault and finally got the green light from NATO... and the offensive began," a rebel leader in Zintan, a hill town, said on Wednesday.

An AFP correspondent embedded with the rebels said there were intense exchanges of artillery, mortar and cannon fire with government troops dug in around Gualish.

Several African mercenaries fighting alongside Gaddafi forces were captured. NATO listed seven targets where Kadhafi's military equipment had been attacked, including eight armoured vehicles and military refuelling equipment near the eastern oil town of Brega.

An anti-aircraft gun had also been destroyed near Gharyan where, earlier this week, four tanks were destroyed. Eight armed vehicles were also hit in the Zlitan area.

At the same time, insurgents said forces from their western coastal enclave of Misrata had pushed to within a short distance of Zlitan, some 60 kilometres (36 miles) further west, with 20 killed on both sides.

In the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, an official statement said "ten of our martyrs were killed and 59 others wounded" on Wednesday in clashes with Gaddafi loyalists in the push on Zlitan.

Ten Gaddafi fighters were also killed, the statement added, saying others had fled. They abandoned a school used as a weapons depot, and an "enormous amount" of munitions, heavy weapons and military vehicles was captured.

Wing Commander Mike Bracken, the NATO mission's military spokesman, said "anti-Kadhafi forces look to have the initiative and are able to launch successful attacks against pro-Gaddafi forces."

But Gaddafi forces still hold two cities west of Tripoli, Zawiyah and Zuwarah, and are "rearming, regrouping and fighting in places such as Kikla, Misrata and Dafnia," he added via video link from NATO operational headquarters in Naples, Italy.

On the political front, a senior Chinese diplomat visited Benghazi and met members of the opposition, Chinese state media reported on Thursday, as Beijing showed itself becoming more deeply engaged in the war-torn nation.

Chen Xiaodong, in charge of North African affairs at the foreign ministry, met officials of the opposition's National Transitional Council (NTC), the official Xinhua news agency said.

Chen called for a quick political solution to the four-month-long conflict and urged the rebels to hold talks with officials loyal to Gaddafi, it said.

Until recently, China had maintained its long-standing policy of non-interference and public neutrality on the conflict, calling repeatedly for a peaceful end to the popular uprising.

But it now appears to be getting more involved. Last month, Beijing recognised Libya's opposition as an "important dialogue partner" after talks in the Chinese capital between foreign minister Yang Jiechi and senior rebel leader Mahmud Jibril.

In addition to the NATO assistance, the West has thrown its diplomatic and financial support behind the NTC, which has been recognised by about 20 countries including Britain, France and the United States.

But alliance member Italy, pressed by the need to cut defence spending, announced on Thursday that it was removing the aircraft carrier Garibaldi, its three fighter jets and 1,000 personnel from the Libyan operation.

The Garibaldi would be replaced by a smaller vessel and by warplanes from military bases, Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa said.

And global cultural watchdog Heritage Without Borders warned that Kadhafi may have hidden weapons in the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna, a few kilometres (miles) west of Zlitan, expressing fears that fighting might damage the UN-protected World Heritage Site.  -AFP

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