Libyan rebels gain momentum in west

Libya's rebel fighters are closing in on what they believe is a major weapons supply route for Qaddafi forces.

Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters
Libyan rebel fighters flash victory signs at Misrata's western frontline July 6.

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Libya's rebels in the west are gaining confidence as victories in the Nafusa Mountains bring them closer to major supply routes for Libyan government forces – and closer to Tripoli. On Wednesday they captured the mountain town of Qawalish, ending a stalemate with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's forces and giving momentum to their incremental march toward the capital.

Seizing Qawalish brings the rebels within 35 miles of the town of Gharyan, which lies along a highway that runs south from Tripoli and has become a major supply line for Mr. Qaddafi since NATO began blockading the Tripoli port, The New York Times reports.

Taking Gharyan is one of the main goals of the rebels in the west because an estimated 900 government forces are stationed there with rockets and artillery. However, an approach will be dangerous for the rebels because well-armed government forces remain in control of the surrounding towns and villages. Qawalish was as far as the rebels were willing to go Wednesday, and many of their fighters pulled back to the west of the town when Qaddafi's forces began shelling it.

The gains in the west are particularly encouraging for the rebels because their fighters in the east have made little progress recently, the Washington Post reports. Part of their success can be attributed to NATO's ramped-up efforts in the region, although the western rebels also say that their battle plans and familiarity with the mountainous terrain have been crucial.

Although the revolt in the mountains began around the same time as elsewhere in the country, notable gains have happened only in the past month, according to the Post. They have coordinated all their attacks with NATO to make sure they are not caught in the coalition's strikes, as has happened to rebel fighters elsewhere in Libya.

Rebels also launched an offensive from Misurata Wednesday aimed at breaking a government hold on the town of Zlitan, which lies along a highway to Tripoli, the Guardian reports. They attempted to break through Qaddafi's forces to Zlitan several other times in the past month but never succeeded. Rebel fighters report they have seized some of the government checkpoints and bases between the two cities, but are struggling without adequate tanks and artillery.

While fighting went on in the mountains, the government announced that it would be trying 21 rebel leaders in absentia for treason. The charges mean little because those accused are beyond the reach of government forces, but it is a signal that Qaddafi is searching for nonmilitary means to gain an upper hand, the Los Angeles Times reports. A judge told reporters in Tripoli that the government would ask for international assistance to bring the men to justice.

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