DAFNIYA/AL-QAWALISH, Libya (Reuters) – Muammar Gaddafi threatened to take the war in Libya to Europe on Friday while rebels came under heavy fire as they renewed their push against his forces.
Tens of thousands of Gaddafi supporters rallied in Tripoli’s Green Square for Friday prayers, underscoring his refusal to step down after four decades in power and five months of fighting.
Large numbers also turned out in the desert town of Sabha, 800 km (500 miles) to the south in an apparent attempt to show that Gaddafi still enjoys support in the areas of Libya he still controls.
In a speech on Libyan television, Gaddafi threatened to send hundreds of Libyans to carry out attacks in Europe in revenge for the NATO-led military campaign against him.
“Hundreds of Libyans will martyr in Europe. I told you it is eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. But we will give them a chance to come to their senses,” the Libyan leader said in an audio speech.
While the insurgents have advanced on two fronts in the past two weeks, they took casualties on Friday. At least six rebels were killed and 17 injured on the front line near Misrata, on Libya’s Mediterranean coast, according to local medical workers.
Rebels there came under heavy artillery fire from Gaddafi’s forces and a Reuters team near the front saw a mortar shell land near a rebel unit.
Five members of the rebel unit were wounded, two seriously. One fighter’s fingers were partly severed and left hanging from his hand after the explosion.
A rebel sympathizer in Misrata told Reuters opposition forces had been moving closer to neighboring Zlitan, one of a chain of government-controlled towns blocking their advance to Tripoli.
As they advanced, pro-Gaddafi troops inside the city fired rounds of explosives to block their progress, the sympathizer said in an e-mail.
“The rebels are waiting for NATO backup or for Gaddafi forces to run out of ammunition to make a move to take the city center,” he said.
On the other major front, in the Western Mountains region southwest of Tripoli, NATO warplanes bombed forces loyal to Gaddafi several times in mid-afternoon, their bombs landing about 3 km (2 miles) east of the village of Al-Qawalish, according to one rebel fighter.
After weeks of static fighting, the rebels made significant advances on Wednesday: pushing west from Misrata to within 13 km (8 miles) of Zlitan, where large numbers of pro-Gaddafi forces are based, and seizing the village of Al-Qawalish in the southwest.
Taking Al-Qawalish brings them closer to having control of a major highway into the capital.
Rebel advances over the last two weeks have allowed normal life to resume in towns no longer in shelling distance of Gaddafi’s troops.
Rebels staged a military parade on Friday evening in Zintan, one of the main towns in the Western Mountains. Scores of children thronged the streets to watch the rebels drive through on tanks.
People fired rifles in the air including one small boy who opened fire with a Kalashnikov assault rifle while perched on his father’s shoulders.
Tens of thousands of Gaddafi supporters and tribal leaders rallied in Tripoli’s Green Square for Friday prayers and a sermon predicting a swift end to the rebellion.
Preacher Ali Abu-Sowah told thousands of worshippers Libya could implement reform without the intervention of the West and accused the rebels of being Western stooges.
“How can we allow such meddling when we see what happened in beloved Iraq and Afghanistan?” he said.
In Sabha, the biggest town in southern Libya, organizers said 250,000 people representing most of the tribes of the south turned out to show support for Gaddafi.
Britain, one of the main backers of the campaign against Gaddafi, predicted that “the writing is on the wall” for the Libyan leader.
“I think it’s heading toward a clear conclusion — eventually, we don’t know when that will be, when Colonel Gaddafi realizes that his departure is essential to the future of Libya and its people,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Reuters in an interview on Friday.
“I think the pressure on the regime is increasing all the time. We have intensified the military campaign, it will be intensified further. The economic pressure is intensifying also, and so is the diplomatic pressure,” he said during a visit to Addis Ababa.
In what may be the latest financial squeeze on Gaddafi, Turkey has frozen $1 billion of Libyan central bank reserves deposited in its banks, a Turkish newspaper reported on Friday.
(Additional reporting by Souhail Karam in Rabat, Lutfi Abu-Aun in Tripoli, Lamine Chikhi in Sabha and Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa; Writing by Giles Elgood; editing by Robert Woodward)
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Photo credit: Agência Brasil