Libya rebels seize desert hamlet in Tripoli push


Libyan rebels on Wednesday seized the desert hamlet of Gualish on the first day of a NATO-backed push on Tripoli and captured a number of African mercenaries, an AFP correspondent said.
Buoyed by French arms drops and NATO-led air strikes, the rebels attacked positions in the Gualish area, in the plains north of their enclave in the Nafusa mountains southwest of Tripoli.
The correspondent embedded with the rebels said they captured a number of mercenaries, some of whom were seen in a pick-up truck and said they were from Ghana and Mali.
Earlier, a rebel leader from the hill town of Zintan said his forces had coordinated their assault with NATO, which has stepped up its bombing campaign by destroying frontline armour of Moamer Gathafi's regime in the past week.
"We waited before launching this assault and finally got the green light from NATO this morning and the offensive began," the rebel leader said.
There were intense exchanges of artillery, mortar and cannon fire between the rebel fighters and government troops dug in around Gualish, the AFP correspondent reported.
The area targeted by the rebel offensive is seen as strategic as it also features the garrison city of Gharyan, a government stronghold in the Nafusa mountains.
In an operational update, NATO said it struck four tanks and two armed vehicles in Gharyan, along with command and control centres near the rebel-held western city of Misrata and eastern oil town of Brega on Tuesday.
NATO also said it carried out air strikes Wednesday on a fuel depot in Brega that had been used to supply forces loyal to Gathafi.
After a retreat from around the plains town of Bir al-Ghanam last week, rebel spokesman Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani pledged last Saturday that his forces would soon try to push the front line northwards.
Wednesday's offensive came a day after France said it no longer needed to drop weapons to the rebels fighting the Gathafi regime since they were getting more organised and could arrange to arm themselves.
However, French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet cautioned against the rebels' prospects of defeating Gathafi and pushing toward the capital.
Paris acknowledged last week it has made a series of parachute drops of weapons, including rocket launchers, to Berber rebel fighters in the Nafusa mountains, in a move criticised by Russia and the African Union.
On the diplomatic front, a Libyan rebel leader on a visit to Ankara pressed the international community Wednesday to release frozen Libyan funds and make them available to opposition forces.
Mahmud Jibril, a senior member of the National Transitional Council (NTC) based in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, made the appeal after talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
"A short time ago, we passed a message to the UN representative for Libya, to be conveyed to (UN) Security Council members, (asking) that Libya's assets be allocated to us," Jibril told reporters.
And rebel leaders for the first time are to hold talks with NATO's 28-nation North Atlantic Council on July 13 to present their plans for democratic transition, the organisation's chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday.
South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, meanwhile, said Gathafi has sent envoys to President Jacob Zuma to say that he will stay out of talks on a peace deal and on his own future.
"He said he does not want to stand in the way of a settlement, and so he will not be part of negotiations about the future of Libya or his own future," Nkoana-Mashabane told a news conference in Pretoria.
Zuma is part of an African Union team trying to broker a peace deal in Libya, and met Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev and the NATO chief on Monday in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Meanwhile, preparations are underway for an international meeting on Libya in Istanbul on July 15-16, as diplomats increasingly mull what post-Gathafi Libya might look like, with many hoping to avoid Iraq or Afghanistan-style chaos.
Rasmussen said Tuesday the alliance would like to see the United Nations assume the lead role in Libya's transition to democracy in the event Gathafi leaves power.
In Benghazi, thousands of Libyans opposed to Gathafi spilled into the streets of the rebel capital on Wednesday, hoping to bolster rebel moral and send a message to Tripoli.
And in Tripoli, a judge charged NTC rebel leaders with sedition and espionage, saying they would go on trial before a special court.