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Libyan rebels on offensive 6 months into uprising

A wounded Libyan rebel, shot by a sniper, lies on a hospital bed in Misrata (© 2009 AFP)

Rebels from Misrata pushed into the western Libyan town of Tuarga Friday to halt rocket attacks by Moamer Kadhafi’s forces, as they buried five fighters killed in the eastern front of Brega.

Rebels were rattling the gates of Brega, a strategic oil hub, almost six months after rising up against Kadhafi’s forces, which a top NATO commander said were no longer able to launch a credible military offensive.

The rebels, inspired by revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, launched popular protests against Kadhafi on February 15. They vowed that in just a “a few days” they plan to retake Brega, nestled on the Gulf of Syrte.

Rebels, backed by NATO helicopters, have tried for the past three weeks to seize the vital port 240 kilometres (140 miles) southwest of their eastern stronghold of Benghazi.

By late Thursday, after a day of fighting, the rebels said they had taken control of one of three residential zones in Brega.

“Every day, we are gaining ground.” said Fawzi Bukatif, a civil engineer and a top commander of the insurrection.

In Benghazi Friday, the rebels buried five of their “martyrs,” including the commander of a brigade of volunteer civilians, killed the day before on the front line of Brega, an AFP journalist said.

Five coffins draped with the red, black and green “Free Libya” flag were laid out at the city’s corniche, where thousands of worshippers flocked for midday prayers.

“Today we are in mourning. Tomorrow we take revenge,” said a lieutenant at the funeral before heading back to the front line of Brega.

Meanwhile, rebels from Misrata pushed against Kadhafi’s troops in Tuarga in an effort to end the barrage of missiles hitting the western town almost daily.

Rebels controlled much of Tuarga on Friday, an AFP correspondent witnessed.

Deep inside the sprawling desert town rebels searched door-to-door for snipers and other remnants of Kadhafi’s forces, after clearing residential areas in the north and the centre, in an attack that began early Thursday.

In a symbolic show of victory fighters tore down green flags that were hoisted atop buildings by Kadhafi supporters — who just hours earlier had occupied the area.

“Kadhafi is finished!” shouted a jubilant 31-year-old fighter named Mohammed.

Shunning any complex close-quarters urban warfare, the two sides exchanged artillery fire that doctors said left at least three rebels dead and as many as 30 wounded.

NATO had softened the ground for the rebels overnight on Wednesday, hitting three command and control nodes and two military storage facilities in Tuarga.

Meanwhile, Kadhafi’s regime threatened on Friday to execute anyone found to be using a Thuraya satellite telephone without official authorisation, saying they will be deemed to be communicating with the enemy.

“Any citizen in possession of a Thuraya must hold an authorisation to use it in accordance with the laws and regulations,” the official JANA news agency said.

“Otherwise, he will be punished according to the law that criminalises communicating with the enemy in time of war, and stipulates penalties up to the death penalty,” the agency added.

NATO was authorised in March by UN Security Council resolution 1973 to defend Libya’s civilian population from attacks by Kadhafi’s regime, which faces a popular revolt after 42 years in power.

The alliance’s top Libya commander, Canada’s Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard, told AFP the air strikes had affected Kadhafi’s military capabilities.

“The Kadhafi regime’s forces continue to be weakened, both in strength and their will to fight,” he said, speaking from his Italian headquarters.

“They are no longer able to launch a credible offensive,” he added.

Today, there’s “activity” on three fronts, in Brega, in Misrata and the Nafusa mountains, Bouchard said, adding that Kadhafi’s forces are “shooting blindly on civilians.”

“On the three fronts, we’re seeing changes as anti-Kadhafi forces march forward to stop the attacks on the population,” he added.

Kadhafi’s regime last week accused NATO of killing 85 people, including women and children, with air strikes on the village of Majer, south of the disputed city of Zliten, charges denied by Bouchard.

“I can assure you that the target was a legitimate one that contained mercenaries, a command center and 4×4 vehicles modified with automatic weapons, rocket launchers or mortars,” Bouchard said.

“I cannot believe that 85 civilians were present when we struck in the wee hours of the morning, and given our intelligence” on the target, he added.

“I can assure you that there (were not) 85 civilians present, but I cannot assure you that there were none at all.”

On the diplomatic front, Gabon recognized the National Transitional Council as the legitimate representative of Libyans while French President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed France would see its mission “through the end.”

Sarkozy also paid tribute to the (nearly 2,000) marines aboard air craft carrier Charles de Gaulle, springboard of over a thousand air strike and reconnaissance exits since it was deployed to Libya almost five months ago.

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