Libyan rebels take strategic town of Bir al-Ghanam

Nato air strikes help fighters break weeks of stalemate as the rebels ready themselves to advance to their next objective, Zawiyah.

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BIR AL-GHANAM // Libyan rebels who captured the strategic town of Bir al-Ghanam, about 80km south of Tripoli, were savouring victory yesterday when they saw government vehicles approaching.

"They are coming," said the fighter as he and others ran to sand dunes and fired weapons at approaching Libyan army vehicles, forcing them to turn away.

It was a reminder that the rebels could face tough resistance when they try to advance to their next objective, Zawiyah, a town 50km west Tripoli.

Zawiyah has been the scene of two uprisings which were crushed by Libyan leader Col Muammar Qaddafi's security forces.

A large contingent of the rebels who captured Bir al-Ghanam are from Zawiyah, so it holds special meaning for them.

As the takeover of Bir al-Ghanam suggests, getting there may not be possible without strong, sustained support from Nato, something rebels said they often lack.

Rebels said they opened fire with rockets from nearby ridges, then attacked government forces on foot and by pickup lorry.

Col Qaddafi's men hit back with rockets, killing five rebels, including a Libyan-American father and son who died holding each other in the battle lasting several hours, fighters said.

Nato air strikes which pounded the settlement may have been the deciding factor. They destroyed three government tanks. A nearby house and factory were also pulverised.

Taking Bir al-Ghanam broke weeks of stalemate during which rebels were unable to advance. But many said the next step, advancing towards Zawiyah, would be tough.

To get there, they must grab a few villages including one called Nasr, where they believe many hard-core pro-Qaddafi forces are stationed.

"There were a lot of African mercenaries in Bir al-Ghanam and we expect a lot more on the way to Zawiyah," said Tareq Gazal, 19. "We just finished burying some of them. They are the best fighters Qaddafi has. They are not afraid of death."

Col Qaddafi's government denies using mercenaries. It describes the rebels as armed gangs and Al Qaeda sympathisers.

The rebels who seized Bir al Ghanam want payback. Col Qaddafi's men beat them in Zawiyah and they believe taking it back would be a fatal blow to his 41-year rule. The rebels said they have comrades in Zawiyah who went underground. The goal is to storm the city, team up with their allies, and head for Tripoli.

* Reuters