AL-MAYA, Libya (Reuters) - Rebel fighters were already jubilant as they streamed through this village Sunday towards what they seemed sure was the final battle to topple Muammar Gaddafi.
“Now we go to Tripoli to get him,” said a fighter driving with five others in a pickup loaded with guns.
“Freedom, freedom,” shouted others in overloaded cars.
Hundreds of local residents along the coastal strip lined the road to cheer on fighters battling from the west towards Gaddafi’s last stronghold, the capital itself.
“Now Libya is free. God is great,” said one resident, Ahmed, standing in front of his modest home near the front line as gunshots and blasts from rocket launchers rang out.
Thousands of rebels were just 15 miles from the capital city, where an uprising by Gaddafi’s opponents erupted late Saturday, leading to hundreds of deaths.
Rebels have been trying to oust Gaddafi since an uprising began in February in Libya’s east.
They beamed with confidence as they passed through al-Maya on foot or packed into Toyota pickups and trucks fitted with anti-aircraft guns. Many fired shots into the air.
But there was no sign that the coming battle would be easy. The fighting in Tripoli overnight Saturday killed 376 on both sides and injured about 1,000 others, a Libyan government official told Reuters.
Gaddafi Sunday vowed to stay in Tripoli “to the end” and called on his supporters around the country to take up arms and battle the rebel “rats.”
On the road to Tripoli, three rebels rode in the back of an ambulance rushing towards the front. Others fired into the air shouting “God is great.”
“Don’t be afraid. Gaddafi is finished,” a rebel armed with two guns who gave his name as Abdullah told civilians standing by the road.
“We are so happy, so happy,” said Mohammed, who lives in the village, as he shook hands with rebels.
Rebels drew fire up the road, halting their forward progress. But within two minutes the advance continued, with some civilians joining the convoy along the way.
“We will win. Nothing can stop us. Gaddafi is finished,” said one of the fighters, Muammer, carrying an ammunition belt filled with bullets.
In testament to a quick retreat, partly eaten lunches and ammunition lay on the floor of a small building that the rebels say had been occupied hours earlier by Gaddafi soldiers trying in vain to defend a nearby bridge.
On the other side of the road three rebels sat on a captured rocket launcher.
“Libya is free,” other soldiers coming back from the front said. Over the course of an hour, the sounds of heavy weapons grew fainter in al-Maya as the front line inched towards Tripoli.
Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Andrew Roche