Fighting rages in Libya as rebels deny talks

Libyan rebels on Monday denied they were in talks with Moamer Kadhafi's regime, as fighting raged in both east and west and Washington said the embattled strongman's "days are numbered."

Sources close to the Tunisian security services had earlier reported such talks 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.

Former Jordanian Foreign Minister and United Nations' envoy for Libya, Abdul Ilah al-Khatib, speaks with Tunisian Secretary of State Radhouane Rouissi (R) during a meeting on August 15, 2011 in Tunis

But UN spokesman Farhan Haq said the international body 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 that negotiations on Libya's future would take place in a Tunis hotel and that he would attend.

The reports of rebel-regime negotiations in Tunisia had 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," said Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, vice-chairman of the rebels' National Transitional Council.

But Tunisia's national news agency TAP reported that talks were under way with "several other foreign parties," without elaborating, and a witness reported a South African jet and two Qatari military helicopters on the tarmac at the airport in Djerba, a Tunisian island near the Libya border.

Kadhafi's Deputy Interior Minister Mabruk Abdallah meanwhile flew from Djerba to Egypt on a private plane with nine family members, 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 exactly six months ago.

In the west, Kadhafi's forces shelled central Zawiyah 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.

Rebels said earlier they had seized "most" of the port 40 kilometres (25 miles) west of Tripoli, the last barrier to their thrust towards the capital.

The rebels also claimed they had 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 (nine-mile) 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 over 40 years, with White House spokesman Jay Carney saying the increasingly isolated strongman's "days are numbered."

Washington meanwhile accredited Libyan opposition envoy Ali Aujali as the new ambassador, two weeks after transferring the Libyan embassy to the NTC, which it recognizes as the country's de facto government.

The Libyan regime has denied it is in danger, however, 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," Libyan government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim told a news conference in Tripoli.

On the eastern front, rebels battled loyalist forces around oil installations in the town of Brega, where the rebels have seized rows of seaside apartment blocks that used to house oil workers.

Kadhafi's forces meanwhile fired a Scud missile -- for the first time since the war began -- from their central stronghold of Sirte, a US defense 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 kilometers), the official said on condition of anonymity.

A defiant Kadhafi has meanwhile denied widespread rumors 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 a recent audio message on Libyan television.

The veteran leader called on his supporters to "prepare for the battle to liberate" the rest of the country.

AFP

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