TRIPOLI, Aug 15, 2011 (AFP) - Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi spat defiance at opposition forces and NATO on Monday amid rumours he was preparing to flee the country and as rebels claimed control of key towns near his capital Tripoli.
(AFP FILES) A picture taken on April 10, 2011 shows Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi gesturing at his supporters outside his Bab al-Aziziya residence after his meeting with African leaders in Tripoli
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.
His message came as rebels claimed to have wrested control of Sorman, 60 kilometres (38 miles) west of Tripoli and Garyan, 50 km to the south, but admitted they were battling to advance against the strongman's forces in the key port of Zawiyah.
"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 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," Kadhafi 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.
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 Kadhafi 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-Kadhafi 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-Kadhafi 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 Garyan 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, 60 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.
The Libyan rebels claimed early Monday to have won control of Sorman as well as of Garyan, which, if proven true, would put them in sight of the capital.
The advances mean that Tripoli's supply lines from Tunisia are severed, according to Abdulsalam Othman, spokesman for the rebels' western military council.
"We now have full control" of the 15 kilometre (nine mile) stretch of road between the coastal cities of Sorman and Zawiyah, Othman said, adding however that the battle for Zawiyah, 40 kilometres west of Tripoli, was still raging.
"All the entrance gates (of Sorman and Garyan) are under the control" of the rebels, he said, but admitted the "presence of an unknown number" of Kadhafi's snipers in some residential areas.
The advance on Sorman, about 60 kilometres west of Tripoli, started at dawn on Sunday, Othman told AFP in Zawiyah.
After more than 10 hours of intense battle, the rebels managed to force Kadhafi's troops to retreat. During the fight, more than 40 fighters, some of them sub-Saharan African mercenaries, were captured.
The battle for Garyan, some 50 kilometres south of Tripoli, also raged throughout Sunday, he said.
"All roads and access to the city are under our control except the western neighbourhood of Asabia," he said.
Rebel forces failed however to make headway against Kadhafi loyalists in the strategic port town of Zawiyah, maintaining control of the southern and western gates but not being able to advance towards the centre of the city.
Bashir Ahmed Ali, commander of the battalion fighting to wrest the town from loyalist forces, told AFP rebels had advanced three kilometres into Zawiyah but no further.
Loyalist troops, he added, still control Zawiyah's main square and the entire east of the town.
The battle intensified after Sunday's midday prayers, with Kadhafi forces heavily shelling areas controlled by the rebels.
Snipers are also positioned in many government buildings and residential areas, Ahmed Ali said.