Mountain rebels plot their assault on Tripoli

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The Independent Online

In Libya's western mountains, rebel fighters are slowly progressing towards Tripoli, gradually tightening their grip on Colonel Gaddafi's embattled regime.

The Berber fighters of Jebel Nafusa, a narrow strip of mountaintop villages jutting into Libya from its western border with Tunisia, have inched eastwards, taking village after village in weeks of fierce fighting.

On 6 July rebels captured the town of Qawalish from Gaddafi's troops and are now poised to advance to Gharyan, a heavily fortified town on the strategically important highway linking Tripoli to the south of the country.

Gaddafi's forces briefly recaptured Qawalish on Wednesday but were driven out by a large rebel counter-offensive later that day.

While the advances are a boon for a rebel army that for months has been bogged down on the eastern front lines outside Brega and around the besieged city of Misrata, the gains in Nafusa are jeopardised by attacks on the single road to the Tunisian border, which comes under constant shelling.

"There are rockets every day, in Tunisia also," explained Adel Assker, a communications engineer in Nalut, an hour's drive from the Tunisian border.

Nalut today is a shuttered ghost town. The men who have stayed here say more than half the population has fled to Tunisia. "Sometimes we are attacked all day, many times a day," said Naji Shaiboub, a former policeman now working in the town's military operation room, over the buzz and crackle of incoming radio reports. "The shelling is random. None can guarantee when it will happen."

Conditions are harsh inside the town, which is now wholly reliant on its precarious link to the Tunisia border for supplies. People here say food is scarce and fuel supplies low. "Electricity got cut off two weeks ago and the water keeps running out," said Walid, a young rebel.

But morale is high. Like other rebel-held towns in Libya, Nalut is festooned with revolutionary graffiti. "Thanks Nato, you've saved our lives," reads one of the town's newly painted murals.