NEAR BIR AL-GHANAM, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan rebels gathered on a ridge overlooking a strategic town only 80 km (50 miles) from Tripoli on Thursday, preparing for a battle that could allow them to march directly to the seat of Muammar Gaddafi’s power.
About 50 rebel fighters spent Thursday at an observation post 2 km outside the town of Bir al-Ghanam, using binoculars to try to assess the position of Gaddafi’s forces.
They reached the area on Sunday after fighting in the Western Mountains southwest of Tripoli, an area where France said this week it had air-dropped arms, provoking a diplomatic storm among world powers.
A French military spokesman confirmed on Thursday a report in Le Figaro that rocket launchers and assault rifles were among arms parachuted in, prompting an angry reaction from Russia, one of many countries who have kept doors open to Gaddafi.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said supplying arms was a “crude violation” of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1970, which imposed a comprehensive arms embargo in February.
Gaddafi’s forces in Bir al-Ghanam know the rebels are watching them from the ridge. At one point on Thursday they fired mortars and artillery, sending people running for cover.
The town is just an hour’s drive from Aziziyah on Tripoli’s southern outskirts, and a similar distance from Zawiyah, which controls the coastal highway that links Tripoli to the Tunisian border and the outside world.
A trickle of fighters from around the region joined them throughout the day. Some came from Zintan, in the mountains behind them, while others said they had made their way clandestinely from Zawiyah, where Gaddafi’s forces have put down two revolts since February.
The rebels encouraged more arms deliveries.
“Giving (us) weapons we will be able to decide the battle more quickly, so that we can shed as little blood as possible,” senior rebel figure Mahmoud Jibril said in Vienna.
The rebels advance in the west contrasts with little progress east of Tripoli, increasing frustration among NATO allies over a three-month-old air campaign to back the rebels that has exceeded costs and time-frames originally envisaged.
France, Britain and the United States say the air campaign will not end until Gaddafi falls. The war has become the bloodiest of the “Arab Spring” uprisings sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.
Paris says it has not violated the U.N. embargo because the weapons it gave the rebels were needed to protect civilians from an imminent attack, which a later resolution seems to endorse.
Washington agreed. “We believe that U.N. Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973, read together, neither specified nor precluded providing defence materiel to the Libyan opposition,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
“We would respectfully disagree with the Russian assessment,” he added.
Nevertheless, the United States had not taken steps to arm the rebels, he said.
Rebels acknowledged French support, saying it had helped sustain them in the region.
“There should be no doubt that Libyans in the Nafusa Mountain (Western Mountains) area are alive and safe today thanks to a combination of heroic Libyan bravery and French wisdom and support,” Vice Chairman Abdul Hafeedh Ghoga of the Transitional National Council said in a statement.
Libyan television broadcast a statement from tribal leaders condemning French President Nicolas Sarkozy over the arms, calling the rebels in the Berber area “a product of France.”
But the rebel advance towards Tripoli’s southwest outskirts from the Western Mountains has not been matched by progress towards the capital from the east, where they hold Misrata on the coast about 200 km (130 miles) from the capital.
The city has been bombarded for months by Gaddafi’s forces. Six rockets landed early on Thursday near the oil refinery and port. A Reuters journalist there reported no casualties.
Insurgents say Gaddafi’s forces are massing and bringing weapons to quell an uprising in Zlitan, the next big town along the road from Misrata to the capital. Rebels inside Zlitan said they mounted a raid on pro-Gaddafi positions on Wednesday night and killed three men in an army patrol on Thursday morning.
France’s weapons airlift, while possibly increasing the insurgent threat to Gaddafi, highlights a dilemma for NATO.
More than 90 days into its bombing campaign, Gaddafi is still in power and no breakthrough is in sight, making some NATO members feel they should help the rebels more actively, something the poorly-armed insurgents have encouraged.
But if they do that, they risk fracturing the international coalition over how far to go.
Russia is not involved in the air campaign, but its stance could add to reservations among some NATO countries over the air war. Moscow could also challenge Paris at the U.N. Security Council, where both are veto-wielding permanent members.
U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said it was up to the Security Council to determine what is permitted by its resolutions.
Even before news of the French arms supply emerged, fissures were emerging in the coalition over the high cost, civilian casualties and the elusiveness of a military victory.
Gaddafi says the NATO campaign is an act of colonial aggression aimed at stealing the North African state’s oil. He says NATO’s U.N.-mandated justification for its campaign — to protect Libyan civilians from attack — is spurious.
The World Bank’s Libya representative said on Thursday Islamist militants could gain ground if the conflict wears on.
“If this civil war goes on, it would be a new Somalia, which I don’t say lightly. In three months we could be dealing with extremists,” said Marouane Abassi, World Bank country manager for Libya who has been in Tunisia since February.
Gaddafi’s daughter Aisha told French 2 television the government was involved in talks with the rebels.
“There are direct and indirect negotiations and we should stop letting Libyan blood,” she said in an interview aired on Thursday. “And for that we are ready to ally with the devil and that is the armed rebels.”
Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Andrew Hammond in Tunis, Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow, Fredrik Dahl and Michael Shields in Vienna, Chris Buckley in Beijing, Andrew Quinn in Washington and London bureau; Writing by Andrew Hammond; editing by Angus MacSwan