TRIPOLI: Libyan leader Moamer Qadhafi spat defiance at opposition forces and Nato on Monday amid rumours he was preparing to flee the country and as rebels made advances in several towns, especially in the west.
The veteran leader predicted a swift end for “the rats” and the “coloniser”, referring to the rebels and Nato, in an audio message on Libyan television, extracts of which were published by Libyan news agency JANA.
“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,” Qadhafi declared in what the television said was a live broadcast.
“The coloniser and its agents can now only resort to lies and psychological warfare after all the wars with all the weapons have failed,” Qadhafi said as rumours circulated on Twitter and other media about his imminent departure into exile.
Much of the message, his first in several weeks, was inaudible due to a “technical breakdown”, according to the television station.
The veteran leader called on his supporters to resist and to “prepare for the battle to liberate” the towns held by the rebels, as the insurgents said they had advanced in western towns including Zawiyah, Sorman and Gharyan.
The television broadcast what it said were live images of the Green Square in the heart of Tripoli where hundreds of backers of the regime were assembled brandishing portraits of the “guide”, as Qadhafi is known, and Libyan flags.
Government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim meanwhile said the regime’s armed forces were capable of retaking the towns and districts where the rebels have made advances in recent days.
“Our mujahedin forces are capable of exterminating these gangs,” he told a news conference reserved for the local press.
Quoted by JANA, Ibrahim added that pro-Qadhafi forces had Sunday repulsed a new rebel offensive on Zawiyah.
Rebels had on Saturday entered the town 40 kilometres (25 miles) west of Tripoli, but the regime played down the importance of the attack, which Ibrahim said was carried out by a few dozen fighters.
South of the rebel town of Misrata, 200 kilometres east of the capital, the rebels had consolidated their positions in Tuarga after taking control of it on Friday and where they said they faced only some pockets of resistance.
But Ibrahim said pro-Qadhafi forces had “retaken control of the town and killed most of those from the Misrata-based gangs who advanced on Tuarga”.
The government spokesman admitted that the rebels had entered the town of Gharyan in the Djebel Nefussa region “in order to spread terror... but there is no need for concern.” Government forces would, he said, take back the town “in the next few hours”.
Ibrahim also acknowledged “problems” in Sorman, 70 kilometres west of Tripoli, where “clashes” were taking place. But “hundreds of volunteers” backed by the army were “handling the case of Sorman”, he said.
Libya’s rebels said earlier they suffered many casualties on Sunday as they advanced on Qadhafi’s forces in the western port of Zawiyah, after losing a tank and four fighters in a “friendly fire” air strike.
“Our forces are in control of the western and southern gates of Zawiyah, and have pushed three kilometres into the city,” Bashir Ahmed Ali, commander of the battalion fighting to wrest the town from loyalist forces, told AFP.
“Regime forces are in control of the east and main centre of the town, where snipers are stationed on top of many buildings. We have suffered many casualties from the snipers,” he said, without giving a precise number.
“There are also snipers in the residential areas, where some families are virtual hostages in their own homes,” he said.
Government spokesman Ibrahim had told reporters late Saturday that Zawiyah, a strategic town 50 kilometres west of Tripoli and the last barrier before the rebels close in on the capital itself, was under complete government control.
The representative of Zawiyah in the National Transitional Council (NTC), the rebels’ de facto government, said there were fears the regime would send in reinforcements to crush their advance.
“We fear the arrival of reinforcements from Tripoli,” particularly by sea, he said in the rebel capital of Benghazi in the east.
“But if Zawiyah falls (to the rebels), we will be able to control everything east of Tripoli to the Tunisian border. This is the beginning of the end for Qadhafi,” he added.
In the south end of Zawiyah’s Surnam district, an AFP reporter witnessed heavy fighting between rebel and regime forces on Sunday. Qadhafi’s forces were shelling rebels from inside the town, he said.
There was an increasing exodus of families fleeing from Tripoli and Zawiyah towards the town of Zintan southeast of the Libyan capital, he reported.
Nato warplanes on Saturday mistakenly destroyed a tank captured from Qadhafi’s forces in Zawiyah, killing four rebels, an AFP photographer said.
Nato said in its daily update that its warplanes had struck two tanks in Zawiyah on Saturday, out of 13 hits around the country.
UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorised Nato in March to defend Libya’s civilian population from attacks by Qadhafi’s regime, which faces a popular revolt after 42 years in power.
Under the mandate, Nato planes regularly attack Qadhafi’s military assets, including tanks, armoured vehicles, rocket launchers, army bases and munitions dumps.