Rebels in western Libya seize mountain towns

June 3, 2011 - 9:00 AM
Mideast Libya

Libyans gather at the site of an explosion in front of the Tibesty hotel in Benghazi, Wednesday, June 1, 2011. A car bomb exploded Wednesday next to the hotel, where foreign diplomats stay in Benghazi, a rare attack in the Libyan rebels' de facto capital. A rebel spokesman said the blast caused no injuries or deaths. (AP Photo/Alaguri)

BENGHAZI, Libya (AP) — A rebel leader says his forces have seized two western mountain towns from Moammar Gadhafi's forces in a push toward the Libyan leader's stronghold in the capital, Tripoli.

Col. Jumaa Ibrahim of the Nafusa mountain military council says Yefren and Shakshuk, the site of a strategic power station, were freed the day before. Ibrahim says the rebel forces are still battling with Gadhafi forces over a small town at the base of the mountain. He said Friday "our aim is the capital."

The victories are a significant breakthrough for the rebels as they try to break Gadhafi's hold on the western half of the coastal nation. The rebels so far have mainly been centered in the east, leaving the two sides locked in a stalemate.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — A series of at least 10 NATO strikes hit in and around the Libyan capital early on Friday, targeting military barracks close to Gadhafi's sprawling compound in central Tripoli, a police station and a military base, a government official said. It was not immediately clear if there were any casualties.

The strikes appeared to be the heaviest in Tripoli since South African President Jacob Zuma visited Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in the capital earlier this week in an apparently unsuccessful effort to find a peaceful resolution to the country's crisis.

Also Friday, a U.N. official said the world body's refugee agency would meet later in the day with a Libyan woman who claimed she was gang-raped by Gadhafi's troops. She was deported Thursday from Qatar where she had sought refuge and was flown against her will to Benghazi, the official said. Benghazi is the Libyan rebels' de facto capital.

Speaking in Geneva, the official, Adrian Edwards, said his agency was with Iman el-Obeidi when she was taken from her Qatar hotel against her will. He said she is a recognized refugee, and her deportation violated international law.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. was "monitoring the situation" and working to ensure al-Obeidi's safety.

"We're concerned for her safety, given all that's happened to her. And we're going to work to make sure that she's kept safe, first and foremost, and that she finds appropriate asylum," Toner told reporters in Washington on Thursday.

In March, al-Obeidi rushed into Tripoli's Rixos Hotel where all foreign correspondents are forced to stay while covering the part of Libya under Gadhafi's control, and shouted out her story of being stopped at a a checkpoint, dragged away and gang-raped by soldiers. As she spoke emotionally and as photographers and reporters recorded her words, government minders, whose job is to escort reporters around the area, jumped her and dragged her away.

She disappeared for several days, then turned up in Tunisia and later Qatar. She was heard from little until Thursday, when she was suddenly expelled from Qatar and ended up in Benghazi, the Libyan rebels' de facto capital. No explanation was forthcoming from Qatar.

Rebel spokesman Jalal el-Gallal said al-Obeidi arrived in Benghazi by plane. "She's welcome to stay, this is her country," el-Gallal told The Associated Press.

Libyan authorities have alternately labeled al-Obeidi a drunk, a prostitute and a thief.

Al-Obeidi has maintained that she was targeted by Gadhafi's troops because she is from Benghazi, the rebel stronghold. Her rape claim could not be independently verified. The Associated Press identifies only rape victims who volunteer their names.

Human rights violations are one aspect of the rebels' complaints against the Gadhafi regime. This week a report by a U.N. body said it found evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by Gadhafi's government, and also charged that the rebels have committed abuses.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Friday that China's ambassador to Qatar recently met with the head of Libya's rebel council, the first known meeting between the two sides. China abstained in the U.N. Security Council vote authorizing NATO military action in Libya.

Four of the early morning blasts Friday shook central Tripoli, targeting an area where military barracks are located, said a government official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy. Those barracks, which had been hit in the past, are close to Gadhafi's sprawling compound.

Six earlier strikes targeted a police station and a military base outside the capital in the areas of Hera and Aziziya, said the official.

The conflict in Libya is nearly four months along, but the situation on the ground appears mostly stalemated. NATO airstrikes have kept the outgunned rebels from being overrun, but the rebels have been unable to mount an effective offensive against Gadhafi's better equipped armed forces.

Gadhafi's regime has been slowly crumbling from within. A significant number of army officers and several Cabinet ministers have defected, and most have expressed support for the opposition, but Gadhafi's hold on power shows little sign of loosening.

Gadhafi has been seen in public rarely and heard even less frequently since a NATO airstrike on his compound killed one of his sons on April 30. Questions are arising about the physical and mental state of the 69-year-old dictator, who has ruled Libya since 1969.

Rebels have turned down initiatives calling for cease-fires, insisting that Gadhafi and his sons must relinquish power and leave the country.

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Additional reporting by Associated Press writers Hadeel al-Shalchi in Cairo and Frank Jordans in Geneva.