BIR AYAD, Libya - Rebels launched a new offensive Saturday out of their stronghold in Libya's western mountains, battling regime forces in a drive toward the heartland of Muammar Qaddafi's rule on the Mediterranean coast. Opening a new front, the rebels are aiming to break a monthslong deadlock and eventually fight their way to the capital, Tripoli.
Booms of shelling and rocket fire echoed from the front lines, centered around the town of Bir Ghanam, where the rebel force backed by tanks fought Qaddafi's troops much of the day. Later, witnesses saw flattened buildings presumably targeted in NATO airstrikes and three smoldering government tanks in the town.
Rebels are hoping for a breakthrough in the far west of Libya, frustrated with the stalemate in the center of the country, where their underequipped forces have been unable to budge the battlelines despite five months of NATO airstrikes on Qaddafi's military. Rebels control most of the eastern half of country, while Qaddafi's regime holds most of the west, centered around Tripoli.
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At dawn, thousands of opposition fighters pushed out of the Nafusa Mountains, a range near the Tunisian border, into the coastal plain toward their main objectives, Zawiya and Sabratha, two key regime-held towns on the Mediterranean west of the capital. Bir Ghanam, one of their initial targets Saturday, lies a little more than a third of the 50-mile distance to Zawiya.
Rebel commander Col. Jumma Ibrahim said opposition forces captured Bir Ghanam and had moved a few miles beyond it, as well as making advances on a separate highway to Sabratha. On that highway, rebels at one point came to within 18 miles of Libya's coastline, but their convoy then came under heavy fire and they retreated, witnesses said.
"Now he can only defend himself against us," Ibrahim said of Qaddafi. "Our main destination is Tripoli, but we cannot jump directly to Tripoli. We go one by one."
Despite the ambitious goals, the new assault is certain to hit tough resistance, as it would push right into the heartland of Qaddafi's control. Zawiya, the rebel's main target on the coast, was the scene of a major uprising by anti-Qaddafi protesters early on in the conflict. The protesters took over the city and drove out regime supporters, but then were brutally crushed in a long, bloody siege.
At a forward medical clinic set up in the hamlet of Bir Ayad, south of Bir Ghanam, doctors rushed to stabilize wounded fighters coming back from the front, as other rebels rested from the battle. Medical officials said five rebels and three regime soldiers had been killed in the fighting.
Rebel gunmen burst out with shouts of "God is great," and mobbed a pickup truck that pulled into Bir Ayad carrying a captured Qaddafi solider. Two rebels shouted at the fighters not to harm him, though a civilian slapped him on the back of the head. The soldier, clearly terrified with tears streaming down his face, was wrapped in a blanket and driven away.
At least three other captured soldiers were brought in later. One of them, Mohammed Tammar, his legs tied and his pants soaked with blood from a leg wound, appealed to the rebels around him, saying Qaddafi had misled his troops, telling them they were fighting NATO and al-Qaida. He and another captured soldier were taken to the rebel stronghold of Zintan in the mountains for interrogation, while a third, with a heavy wound in his back, was taken to a hospital.
Rebel fighter Moussa Hneish said his troops were trading tank fire with regime forces on the highway heading for Sabratha, and had some of the Qaddafi troops surrounded. Ibrahim, the rebel spokesman, said rebel troops eventually also moved forward along that highway.
Earlier this week, the rebels said they hope to reach the Libyan capital before the end of the Muslim fasting holy month of Ramadan, which began on Monday.
The fighters Saturday were enthusiastic - most of them civilians who have taken up arms. On the central fronts, such fighters in the past have often proven undisciplined, charging ahead but then fleeing in the face of heavy resistance.
"We broke through the barrier of fear," proclaimed Fakhredine al-Badrani, a 22-year-old computer student from Zintan. "Today, God willing, we will see a big victory. God willing, this evening we will enter Zawiya."
Commanders said they did not plan on moving on Zawiya on Saturday.
For Saturday's launch, rebel fighters streamed out in trucks from their strongholds in the Nafusa Mountains, including the command center at Zintan, where preparations had been going on for days.
In recent weeks, hundreds of rebel fighters have snuck to Zintan from areas still under Qaddafi's control, entering the mountain area via a detour through Tunisia. They have been grouped into units according to their home towns, as a safeguard against possible pro-Qaddafi infiltrators and in order to let them spearhead the battle for their respective home towns.
For example, about 500 men from Zawiya have been staying at a local school in Zintan. Hundreds of other fighters from Tripoli and Sabratha have units in Zintan.
Also Saturday, a NATO spokesman in Brussels denied reports about an alliance airstrike a day earlier on a convoy of camels carrying weapons from neighboring Chad.