Libyan rebels close on key Gaddafi stronghold

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Libya's rebel forces closed in today on Muammar Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte, the gateway to the western half of the country after it was targeted for the first time by international air strikes.

Witnesses in Sirte said that bombing was heard last night and then again 6.30am, but there was no fighting in the streets or signs of rebel forces. The night before dozens of fighters loyal to Gaddafi could be seen roaming the streets.

The Libyan state news agency also reported that there had been air strikes against the southern town of Sabha, which remains strongly loyal to Gadhafi and is a major transit point for ethnic Tuareg fighters from Mali and Niger fighting for the government.

JANA said the strikes destroyed a number of houses, though past strikes on Sabha, 385 miles south of Tripoli, targeted the airport and the flow of foreign fighters reinforcing the regime.

Libya's rebels have recovered hundreds of miles of flat, uninhabited territory at record speeds after Gaddafi's forces were forced to pull back by international air strikes.

The rebels took back two key oil complexes along the coastal highway and promised to quickly restart Libya's stalled oil exports, prompting a slight drop in the soaring price of crude oil to around $105 a barrel.

Moving quickly westward, the advance retraced their steps in the first rebel march toward the capital. But this time, the world's most powerful air forces have eased the way by pounding Gaddafi's military assets for the past week.

Sirte is strategically located about halfway between the rebel-held east and the Gaddafi-controlled west along the Mediterranean coast. It is a bastion of support for Gaddafi and is expected to be difficult for rebels to take.

West of Sirte is the embattled city of Misrata, the sole place in rebel hands in the country's west. Residents reported fighting between rebels and Gaddafi loyalists who fired from tanks on residential areas.

Rida al-Montasser, of the media committee of Misrata, said that nine young men were killed and 23 others wounded when Gaddafi brigades shelled their position in the northwestern part of the city last night. He also said that the port was bombed.

In Washington, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said he could not offer a timetable for how long the Libya operation could last, as the Obama administration tried to bolster its case for bringing the United States into another war in the Muslim world.

The UN Security Council authorised the operation to protect Libyan civilians after Gaddafi launched attacks against anti-government protesters who demanded that he step down after nearly 42 years in power. The airstrikes have crippled Gaddafi's forces, allowing rebels to advance less than two weeks after they had seemed at the brink of defeat.

The assault on Sirte, where most civilians are believed to support Gaddafi, however, potentially represents an expansion of the international mission to being more directly involved with regime change.

"This is the objective of the coalition now, it is not to protect civilians because now they are directly fighting against the armed forces," Khaled Kaim, the deputy foreign minister, said in the capital, Tripoli. "They are trying to push the country to the brink of a civil war."

Turkey, meanwhile, has confirmed that even as rebel forces advance on Sirte it has been working with the government and the opposition to set up a cease-fire.

"We are one of the very few countries that are speaking to both sides," Foreign Ministry Spokesman Selcuk Unal said, without confirming whether Turkey had offered to act as mediator.

Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also told reporters his country will take over the running of the airport in Benghazi to facilitate the transport of humanitarian aid to Libya. He did not say when, however.