MISRATA // Government artillery rained down on rebel forces yesterday but failed to stop their advance into key ground west of Misrata, their stronghold at Libya's major port.
As fighting raged for a fourth day, Germany's foreign minister paid a surprise visit to the rebel's de facto capital. The German foreign ministry said Guido Westerwelle was meeting the Transitional National Council to deepen relations with the rebels and their nascent government.
Should the Germans recognize the council as the legitimate governing power in Libya, it would mark yet another big diplomatic boost for the rebels, who rose up four months ago to end Muammar Qaddafi's 40-year rule.
Germany refused to participate in the Nato air mission over Libya and withheld support for the no-fly zone.
The rebels control roughly the eastern third of Libya as well as Misrata. They also claim to have taken parts of the coastal oil centre of Zawiya in the far west. That port city is 30 kilometres west of Tripoli and a prize that would put them in striking distance of the capital. Control of the city also would cut one of Colonel Qaddafi's last supply routes from Tunisia.
Despite rebel claims, government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said late Sunday that Qaddafi forces had driven off the attackers, and reporters taken to Zawiya saw secure streets and the green national flag flying over a central square. The insurgents, for their part, claimed a high-ranking Qaddafi commander was badly wounded in the fighting.
"The wishful reporting of some journalists that the rebels are gaining more power and more control of some areas is not correct," he said.
In the major fighting near Misrata yesterday, an Associated Press photographer at the rebel front lines said they had pushed along the Mediterranean Sea to within 10 kilometres of Zlitan, the next city to the west of Misrata. A rebel commander said his forces, using arms seized from government weapons depots and fresh armaments being shipped in from Benghazi, planned to have moved into Zlitan, by today.
Ali Terbelo, the rebel commander, said other opposition forces already were in Zlitan, trying to encircle Colonel Qaddafi's troops. If the rebels take the city, they would be within 135 kilometers of the eastern outskirts of Colonel Qaddafi's capital, Tripoli.
An AP reporter with rebel forces said shelling was intense yesterday morning with rockets and artillery and mortar shells slamming into rebel lines west of Dafniya at a rate of about seven a minute. Dafniya is about 30 kilometers west of Misrata
Officials at Hikma Hospital in Misrata said government shelling killed seven and wounded 49 on Sunday. New casualty figures were not available but ambulances were rushing from the Dafniya line back into Misrata.
The rebel thrust at Zawiya and movements farther east, near Misrata and Brega, suggested the stalemated uprising had been reinvigorated, and that Colonel Qaddafi's defenders may become stretched thin.
Colonel Hamid al Hasi, a rebel battalion commander, told AP: "Over the past three days, we set fire under the feet of Qaddafi forces everywhere," He said the rebels attacked "in very good coordination with Nato" to avoid friendly fire incidents. "We don't move unless we have very clear instructions from Nato."
In addition, the Nato blockade of ports still under government control and alliance control of Libyan airspace have severely crimped Colonel Qaddafi's ability to resupply his forces. And his control has been hard hit by defections from his military and government inner circle.
Nato, meanwhile, has stepped up the bombing of Colonel Qaddafi's compound in Tripoli, striking it again on Sunday, along with a military airport in eastern Tripoli. The government did not immediately report casualties or damage.