, BENGHAZI, Libya, Aug 16 – Fighting raged across Libya on Tuesday after rebels denied they were in talks with Moamer Kadhafi’s tottering regime, and Washington said the embattled strongman’s “days are numbered.”
Meanwhile, Kadhafi forces fired a Scud missile, for the first time since the war began, from their central stronghold of Sirte, a US defence official said, adding that it had landed “harmlessly in the desert.”
“We think it was targeted at Brega,” but was overshot by about 50 miles (80 kilometres), the official said.
On Monday, sources close to the Tunisian security services reported talks had taken place in Djerba, near the border with Libya, as rebel forces drew closer to Tripoli and claimed to have cut vital supply lines to the capital.
But spokesman Farhan Haq said the United Nations had “no concrete information” on any talks in Tunisia and that its Libya envoy, Abdul Ilah al-Khatib, was not taking part in any such talks.
Khatib, who has spent months shuttling between Tripoli and Benghazi trying to kick-start ceasefire talks, had said negotiations on Libya’s future would take place in a Tunis hotel and that he would attend.
The reports of rebel-regime negotiations sparked a swift denial from Benghazi, the insurgency’s stronghold in eastern Libya.
“There are no negotiations or talks between the Kadhafi regime and the NTC in Tunisia or anywhere else,” NTC Vice Chairman Abdel Hafiz Ghoga said.
In western Libya, Kadhafi forces shelled the centre of Zawiyah on Monday hours after rebels claimed they had seized control of most of the strategic port, according to an AFP reporter.
Six Grad missiles hit Zawiyah, sparking a fierce heavy artillery exchange that caused an unknown number of casualties.
In a report Tuesday on its operations a day earlier, NATO said it had hit tanks and an armed vehicle near Zawiyah.
Rebels said earlier Monday they had seized “most” of the port 40 kilometres (25 miles) west of Tripoli, the last barrier to their thrust towards the capital.
They also claimed to have wrested control of the town of Sorman, 60 kilometres west of Tripoli, and Garyan, 50 kilometres to the south.
Abdulsalam Othman, spokesman for the rebels’ western military council, said on Monday that both towns were in rebel hands, as well as the 15-kilometre stretch of road linking Sorman to Zawiyah, which he said meant that Tripoli’s supply lines from Tunisia were severed.
The United States expressed optimism that the rebels were closing in on Kadhafi, who has ruled for more than 40 years, with White House spokesman Jay Carney saying the increasingly isolated strongman’s “days are numbered.”
A defiant Kadhafi denied widespread rumours he had fled the country and predicted a swift victory against both the rebels and NATO, which he has branded a “coloniser.”
“The end of the coloniser is close and the end of the rats is close. They (the rebels) flee from one house to another before the masses who are chasing them,” Kadhafi declared in an audio message on Libyan television.
He called on his supporters to “prepare for the battle to liberate” the rest of the country.
Meanwhile, Kadhafi’s Deputy Interior Minister Mabruk Abdallah flew from Djerba to Egypt on a private plane with nine relatives, a Cairo airport security official told AFP, though it was not clear if he was defecting.
Dozens of high-ranking officials have turned their back on Kadhafi since the pro-democracy uprising — inspired by the so-called Arab Spring — erupted six months ago.
The Libyan regime has denied it is in danger, insisting that its forces can retake towns and districts captured by the rebels in recent days.
“Our mujahedeen forces are capable of exterminating these gangs,” government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said in Tripoli.
On the eastern front, rebels battled loyalist forces around oil installations on Monday in the town of Brega, where the rebels have seized rows of seaside apartment blocks that once housed oil workers.
After a week of street-by-street combat, Brega was like a ghost town.
Under the shade of trees lay the bombed out carcass of a rocket-launching battery, its tubes still aimed at the old rebel lines.
In an alleyway were the remains of a destroyed loyalist vehicle. Nearby, young fighters with long beards and wearing keffiyehs took a few minutes rest on the veranda of a house, greeting visitors with Allah Akbar (God is greatest.)
Four-by-four vehicles full of rebels could be seen heading to the fighting in an industrial area to the west, from which heavy smoke rose, meeting ambulances, sirens screaming, heading for a first-aid station.
NATO said it had hit four multiple rocket launchers in the vicinity of Brega.
Among other key hits were a rocket launcher in Misrata, a military facility and rocket launchers in Zlitan and tanks, radar and surface-to-air missile systems around Tripoli.