AL-QAWALISH, Libya (Reuters) - The frontline Libyan village of Al-Qawalish was a ghost town Thursday, a day after it was seized by rebels, who said life may return to normal in the area after the exit of Muammar Gaddafi's troops.
The rebels seized the village in an eight-hour battle on Wednesday, pushing Gaddafi's forces east at least 10 km (6 miles) beyond an area of open ground. The advance puts the rebels on the road towards Garyan, a larger southern town controlling a major highway into the capital Tripoli.
The advance also pushed Gaddafi's troops out of shelling range of Kikla and Al-Qalaa, frontline towns in the Western mountains region, where the rebels have been steadily restoring ordinary life to villages as they deepen their advance into Libya.
Four months into their rebellion, anti-Gaddafi troops have been making limited progress elsewhere but have made steady advances in the Western Mountains, a narrow, steep-walled plateau that juts for hundreds of kilometres into Libya from the Tunisian frontier, south of the coastal plain and Tripoli.
Several shells landed in the hills around Al-Qawalish while a Reuters team visited Thursday, fired from Gaddafi forces' new frontline positions further east.
Hundreds of rebels who had poured into the village on Wednesday had all but vanished, leaving the village mostly deserted.
A small group of men was filling vehicles with gasoline siphoned from tanks at an abandoned filling station. Nearby shops had been looted bare. One or two houses were ablaze; most stood vacant. Rebels occasionally sped through in Toyota pickup trucks.
At a police station on the western outskirts of the village that had been a major base of Gaddafi's forces, there was evidence of a hasty exit, with pasta packets and police files strewn on the floor inside, and ammunition crates, onions and military boots littering the parking lot.
On a hillside at the other end of the village, a handful of teenage rebels with rifles and a makeshift rocket launcher maintained what they said was the last checkpoint on the highway towards the town of Garyan and Tripoli.
One of the rebels, Tariq Yusuf, said Gaddafi's troops, after retreating from Al-Qawalish, now held a small settlement about 4-5 km away and were mainly massed at Miskeh, a further 4-5 km beyond that.
Government troops had fired rockets at the rebels through the night and had approached around dawn in a small number of vehicles, driving off when the rebels opened fire.
As rebel territory has gradually expanded, pushing the front away from towns and villages, civilians have started returning to once-abandoned areas in the mountains. Towns like Zintan, on the frontline and under constant shelling a few weeks ago, are now peaceful and lively even at night.
Wednesday's rebel advance opens a direct road linking Al Qalaa and Kikla, otherwise accessible only by twisting mountain road. Both towns are largely deserted because of the proximity of the fighting, but the rebels expect the advance to make them safe.
"The Gaddafi soldiers, they attacked many times Kikla, and it will let the people ... return to their houses, rebel spokesman Colonel Juma Ibrahim said.
When the rebels make further advances, it will be safe for people to return to Al-Qawalish as well.
"When we are reaching this village we will call them. You can come back to your homes. They are free. You are our brothers and can come with us to Tripoli."
(Reporting by Peter Graff, editing by David Dolan and Elizabeth Fullerton)