BENGHAZI: Libya’s rebels asked France for extra arms to help them overrun Tripoli within "days", as they ramped up a pre-Ramadan offensive that has Moamer Kadhafi’s troops on the run in the east.
The request was made in Paris on Wednesday to French President Nicolas Sarkozy by military leaders from the rebel-held city of Misrata, a member of their delegation said.
Rebel leader Mahmud Jibril meanwhile was expected to seek additional aid for their military campaign from Spain during talks in Madrid on Thursday with Spanish Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez.
Sarkozy held talks at his Elysee presidential palace with rebel General Ramadan Zarmuh, Colonel Ahmed Hashem and Colonel Brahim Betal Mal, as well as Suleiman Fortia, a local representative of the rebel leadership in Misrata.
"With a little bit of help, we will be in Tripoli very soon. Very soon means days," Fortia told reporters after the meeting. "We are here in France to discuss how we can do the job."
France is taking part in NATO-coordinated strikes against Kadhafi’s military assets and was the first outside state to formally recognize the rebels’ Transitional National Council.
It has already dropped arms to the rebels in the Nafusa Mountains, southwest of Tripoli, to help them defend themselves against Kadhafi’s forces. A rebel source said they were looking for similar deliveries of arms and munitions to Misrata.
"Insurgent commanders came to explain to the head of state that the keys to Tripoli are in Misrata," said a supporter of the rebels, French writer Bernard-Henri Levy, who attended the talks.
"Misrata’s fighters are disciplined, battle hardened and they have a key asset: a military victory already won" against loyalist forces, Levy told AFP after the meeting.
Misrata, around 200 kilometers (125 miles) east of Tripoli, has been controlled by rebels since mid-May, after a two-month siege by Kadhafi forces.
NATO said that on Wednesday aircraft under its command had hit two rocket launchers and three armed vehicles around Misrata and 13 targets in and around Zliten the next town to the west on the road to the capital.
NATO-led aircraft also hit two armed vehicles and a rocket launcher around Brega, a key oil refinery town on the front line between the rebel-held east and the mainly government-held west, the alliance said.
Rebels claim to have chased the bulk of Kadhafi’s eastern army from Brega while encircling loyalists holed up among oil installations in the northwest of the town.
French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said Kadhafi is losing control of crucial energy supplies as the rebels advance in Brega, in Misrata and in the Nafusa Mountains, southwest of the capital.
As part of what now appears to be a countrywide effort to tighten the noose on Kadhafi before the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan begins around August 1, insurgents in the west said they were awaiting orders to start a fresh offensive from the Nafusa Mountains.
Rebel commanders say their immediate target is the strategic crossroads town of Al-Assabah, which would open up the road to the government garrison town of Gharyan, a key gateway to Tripoli.
Rebel forces in Bir Ayad in the plains below the Nafusa Mountains exchanged sporadic fire on Thursday with loyalist troops in Bir Al-Ghanam further north, an AFP correspondent reported.
The rebels fired a salvo of rockets at around 10:00 am (0800 GMT) that was answered by rocket and cannon fire from Kadhafi’s forces, the correspondent said.
Rebel commanders said they were refraining from using cannon fire to avoid civilian casualties as the loyalist troops were holed up in residential areas of Bir Al-Ghanam.
During Ramadan, the endurance of even the hardiest volunteers will be tested by desert battle without food and water during the daytime fast observed by the faithful.
In the desert hamlet of Gualish, the rebels waited patiently in the shade until the next battle as Ramadan approaches and the searing summer sun grows more intense.
"We are preparing for the battle. We hope (it will take place), God willing, before Ramadan," or just after, said rebel commander Mokhtar Lakhdar.
"If there is fighting during Ramadan, we will fight as usual. We will not stop until we have liberated Libya," he said in Gualish, where the mercury hit 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) on Wednesday.
Around him young rebels debated fighting during the fasting month.
"During Ramadan, it will be harder but, God willing, we will not be weakened but rather be stronger. Ramadan is a good time to be a martyr," said Shaban Aabor, 38.