Rebel fighters in western Libya are regrouping for a major offensive and hope to reach Moammar Gadhafi's stronghold, the capital of Tripoli, before the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in late August, a field commander said Thursday.
The rebels in Libya's western Nafusa mountain area are receiving reinforcements, including volunteers arriving from areas still under Gadhafi's control, the commander, Muktar al-Akhdar, told The Associated Press. He spoke after an hours-long strategy meeting of unit commanders in the garrison town of Zintan, base of the area's rebel command.
With fighting largely deadlocked for months, Libya's rebels believe the Nafusa mountain front line is their best chance for striking the capital. But obstacles like land mines spotted in front line areas and gasoline shortages have impeded progress, al-Akhdar said.
There is also the worry that Gadhafi loyalists could infiltrate the ranks, he said.
At times, shouting could be heard from the meeting room. The rebel's military spokesman for the mountain area, Col. Jumma Ibrahim, was evasive when asked about a new push toward Tripoli, saying he was pleased with small territorial gains.
Libya's civil war erupted shortly after anti-regime protests swept across Libya in mid-February, and neither side has made significant gains for months. Gadhafi controls Tripoli on the Mediterranean coast and towns around it, while rebels hold the east of the country and two pockets in the west _ the Nafusa mountain range and the port city of Misrata.
A week ago, the Nafusa rebels launched a limited offensive, descending from their mountain plateau into the coastal plain and seizing three small towns. However, the advance has since stalled, with Gadhafi's forces entrenched in several towns blocking the way to Tripoli. One of the flash points of fighting has been the town of Tiji, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) from the capital along a major highway, where Gadhafi's forces have been entrenched for the past week.
"We are trying to regroup and reorganize our troops in preparation for a major offensive, to march forward toward the cost, toward Tripoli and Zawiya and other areas along the coast," said al-Akhdar.
"Our preparations for the offensive are getting there," he said. "We are receiving fighters from other areas that are not liberated yet. We are training them. We are preparing them for fighting."
"We are trying to be well-prepared and hopefully, we finish this war before the end of Ramadan," said the commander, whose unit is based in Zintan. The fasting month began on Monday, and lasts either 29 or 30 days.
A NATO air campaign targeting Gadhafi's forces is now in its fifth month but has so far failed to help the poorly equipped rebels advance far beyond their strongholds.
On Thursday, the foreign minister of France, one of the leaders of the air campaign, acknowledged that the coalition had underestimated the Libyan leader's resistance.
Alain Juppe said in an interview broacast on France 2 television that "no one ever said it would be a lightening fast war" and that "we probably underestimated Gadhafi's forces' resistance, but we're not bogged down."
He also said the opposition forces were making progress in the south and west of the country.
Rebel spokesmen in the Nafusa area declined to say how many fighters are preparing for the next offensive. Ibrahim, the military spokesman, said there are more than 3,000 fighters from Zintan alone. Another town, Nalut, has sent more than 2,000 men to the front lines. A unit made up of volunteers from Tripoli includes about 500 fighters.
Ibrahim said the influx of volunteers from Gadhafi-controlled areas raised some concerns about the infiltration of spies.
Such fears assumed greater urgency after the rebels' military chief, Abdel Fattah Younes, was killed a week ago. It remains unclear whether Younes was shot dead by pro-Gadhafi infiltrators, as Libya's opposition insists, or was possibly targeted in an internal rift.
Ibrahim said the newcomers are being scrutinized more carefully and assigned to units with others from their home towns, in hopes that this will weed out spies. "If they are from (the area of) Gadhafi, there will be more attention," said Ibrahim, a former pilot in the Libyan air force who defected a few days after the start of the uprising.
Ibrahim said Gadhafi's forces are far better equipped than the rebels, who he said largely fight with what they seize from government troops. He suggested the rebels even lack some basics like sufficient water and fuel.