Revolutionaries claimed to have liberated a key mountain town that is a strategic gateway on the road to Tripoli, driving out Gaddafi forces today in an intensified western offensive aiming to push toward Tripoli.
The town of Gharyan lies at the northern end of the Nafusa Mountains, and Gaddafi’s hold on the town had been a sticking point for revolutionaries who have taken control of most of the range. The town lies on the main road leading directly from Nafusa to Tripoli, 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the north on the Mediterranean coast.
Revolutionaries have been trying for weeks to take Gharyan, and NATO airstrikes have hit Gaddafi’s forces several times in the area.
Gomma Ibrahim, a spokesman for the National Liberation Army in the Nafusa area, said NLA fighters clashed for about four hours with the remains of regime forces in the town — mostly young fighters and mercenaries — who then withdrew. The claims could not immediately be confirmed independently.
The capture solidifies the revolutionaries’ flank as they push ahead with a new offensive launched from further west in the Nafusa range, pushing down into the coastal plain where Gadaffi’s forces have been concentrated. The revolutionaries are hoping to take several cities along the coast before moving on to Tripoli.
NLA commander Fathi el-Ayeb said his fighters were 10 miles (15 kilometers) away from Gaddafi-held Zawiya, a key target in the offensive. He said the revolutionaries’ scouts who returned from Zawiya claim the local residents there were waiting for the revolutionaries to reach the city’s outskirts to join their fight against Gaddafi.
“They are waiting for the revolutionaries to come and they will join them,” said el-Ayeb.
Dozens of Libyan families have been taking advantage of the fighting to flee from Tripoli and head into the Nafusa Mountains.
The families were making their way through desert back roads that appeared to be less guarded amid the fighting between revolutionaries and Gaddafi’s forces near Bir Ghanam, 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Tripoli.
The revolutionaries said they registered 55 families that fled Tripoli in the past three days for the Nafusa mountains. Many were originally from the west but had escaped to Tripoli when the fighting broke out in the mountains months ago.
One of those on the road, Sassi Ahmed, a 47-year-old social studies teacher, said he left Tripoli with his wife and six children because the situation in the capital was “very dangerous and frightening,” with no gas or electricity.
Ahmed told The Associated Press the family piled up their belongings onto their car and sneaked out of the city in a convoy with at least five other families.
Another man, who would not give his name because he feared for relatives who remained in Tripoli, said Gaddafi’s troops first turned him back from one road but he managed to find another way, traveling with his wife and two daughters.
Libya’s revolt began in February, with the revolutionaries quickly wresting control of much of the eastern half of the country, as well as pockets in the west. The conflict later settled into a stalemate with the revolutionaries failing to budge the front lines in the east since April.
The assault from Nafusa is an attempt to try to circumvent the deadlock.
At the main front in the east, revolutionaries fighting Gaddafi forces claimed they captured part of a strategic port city of Brega that has repeatedly changed hands in the 6-month-old war.