CAIRO â€”Rebels racing toward the Libyan capital encountered heavy gunfire Sunday as Moammar Gadhafiâ€™s forces fought to hang onto their rapidly shrinking stronghold in the face of NATO airstrikes and uprisings in neighborhoods across Tripoli.
Gadhafi loyalists contended with a battlefield of multiple and shifting fronts. Rebels advanced from the south, east and west while Muslim clerics urged residents in Tripoli and its outskirts to rise up against the Libyan army.
The intense pressure on Gadhafiâ€™s last redoubt in the 6-month-old revolt led the government to offer a cease-fire as it warned of atrocities should the rebel offensive wasnâ€™t stopped. But even as that appeal was made, Gadhafi taunted the insurgents as rats and a newscaster on state TV brandished a pistol on air and promised to kill rebels.
The government calls for â€œan immediate halt of NATOâ€™s aggression against our nation, and for all parties to sit down and begin a peaceful way out of this crisis,â€ spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said at a news conference in Tripoli. â€œWe believe unless the international community heeds this appeal, many people will be killed and terrible crimes will be committed.â€
Each side claimed the upper hand. Opposition forces advancing from the town of Zawiya retreated after fierce battles about 30 miles west of the Tripoli. They gathered in Jaddayim and prepared for another onslaught. Rebel leaders said their supporters rallied inside the capital as part of a coordinated operation, but the government claimed â€œarmed gangsâ€ had been defeated.
Media reports also said that opposition forces had captured the base of the elite 32nd Brigade commanded by Gadhafiâ€™s son, Khamis. The headquarters is about 15 miles outside the capital.
â€œWe are not going back. God willing, this evening we will enter Tripoli,â€ Issam Wallani, a rebelm told the Associated Press near Jaddayim.
The collaborators with â€œthe West are moving from one town to the next claiming control, but they are not in control, they are escaping like rats,â€ Gadhafi said in an audio broadcast on Libyan television early Sunday. â€œPeople are kissing my picture. I am their leader, I am their father.â€
NATO spokesman Col. Roland Lavoie said in Brussels that the fast-moving events complicated the choice of targets for alliance warplanes. â€œThere is no longer a traditional front line as we had in other phases of the conflict,â€ he said.
Only in recent weeks have the lightly armed rebels capitalized on NATO bombardments on Gadhafiâ€™s artillery, tanks and supply routes, part of a 5-month-old campaign that was begun to protect civilians from the Libyan military. The insurgents have made costly tactical mistakes in the past and have yet to encounter an urban battlefield such as Tripoli, a city of more than 1.6 million that might be booby-trapped and defended by snipers and pro-Gadhafi militias.
But high-level defections have further jeopardized Gadhafiâ€™s control. Abdel-Salam Jalloud, who helped the Libyan leader to rise to power in a 1969 coup, defected in recent days and is reported to be in Rome. Jalloud has influence with the nationâ€™s clans and urged Gadhafiâ€™s tribe to â€œdisown this tyrant because he will go and you will end up inheriting his legacy.â€
In a video message broadcast by Al Jazeera, he added: â€œIt is time to act. … Overcome fear.â€
The rebel offensive â€” a parade of mud-splattered pickup trucks and mismatched uniforms â€” gained momentum a week ago. Insurgents entered Zawiya, about 30 miles west of Tripoli, and pressed into Gharyan, about 50 miles south of the capital. They later captured Zlitan, a strategic coastal town. These victories squeezed Gadhafiâ€™s supply lines. Pressure on the government intensified when rebel stormed the key oil city of Port Brega, about 415 miles east of Tripoli.
Residents of Tripoli are fleeing food and gas shortages. Gadhafi hasnâ€™t been seen in public for weeks, communicating only by audio messages. Rebels claim that hundreds of his loyalists and soldiers have abandoned their posts.