MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan rebels edged slowly beyond their western stronghold of Misrata towards Tripoli, but faced supply shortages after shelling from Muammar Gaddafi forces hit a key refinery in the city.
A Reuters photographer in Misrata joined rebel units as they pushed their front several kilometres (miles) west to the outskirts of Zlitan, a neighbouring town controlled by Gaddafi’s forces.
Any fighting over Zlitan would bring the rebellion closer to the capital Tripoli, the Libyan leader’s stronghold which lies 200 km (124 miles) west of Misrata.
A doctor in a field hospital to the west of Libya’s third largest city said two rebels had been killed and a dozen wounded after the two sides traded heavy artillery fire.
Rebels from Misrata say tribal sensitivities prevent them from attacking Zlitan, and they are instead waiting for local inhabitants to rise up.
Late Monday, six rockets hit generators at the refinery near Misrata port leaving them heavily damaged. An engineer on site said it was unclear how long it would take to repair.
The fighting east of Tripoli came during a lull in NATO bombardment of the Libyan capital. State television reported the alliance had bombarded targets in Al Jufrah in the centre of the country.
A rebel spokesman in Zintan, in the rebel-held Western Mountains range southwest of Tripoli, said the town had been quiet after being subjected to its heaviest bombardment by pro-Gaddafi forces in several weeks Sunday.
“Today has been the quietest day for Zintan in three months, although we started to hear in the evening loud blasts coming from the east.” he said. “We buried (on Monday) the 10 martyrs who were killed after Sunday’s clashes.”
Fighting flared at the weekend in the town of Zawiyah, 50 km (30 miles) west of the capital — clashes the rebel leadership said were a sign that the momentum in the four-month-old conflict was shifting their way.
But Monday, a rebel spokesman in Zawiyah who had been giving accounts of the fighting was no longer reachable by telephone. The main highway west from Tripoli, which had been closed because of the fighting, appeared to have re-opened.
Gaddafi has said the rebels are criminals and al Qaeda militants. He has described the NATO military intervention as an act of colonial aggression aimed at grabbing Libya’s oil.
Western governments say they believe it is only a matter of time before Gaddafi’s 41-year rule ends under the weight of NATO military intervention, sanctions and defections.
NATO member Germany became the latest country to recognise the rebel council based in the second city of Benghazi as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, giving heavyweight support to leaders poised to run the country if Gaddafi falls.
France, Qatar, Italy and the United Arab Emirates have already recognized the Transitional National Council.
“We share the same goal — Libya without Gaddafi,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Benghazi.
In the latest diplomatic shuffling to add pressure on Gaddafi, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged African leaders to abandon him.
Gaddafi has styled himself the African “king of kings” and over the years won support from many African states in exchange for financial help and generous gifts. Most countries on the continent have been lukewarm towards the rebels.
“Your words and your actions could make the difference... (in ending this situation) ...and allowing the people of Libya to get to work writing a constitution and rebuilding their country,” Clinton said in a speech to the African Union in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
Additional reporting by Souhail Karam in Rabat; writing by John Irish; Editing by Matthew Jones