DAFNIYA, Libya (Reuters) - Rebel commander Mohammed Swahili said he picked market day in Zlitan to approach the town and raise the rebel flag, in the slow push westwards toward the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
Rebels hoisted the flag at a grocery store on the outskirts of Zlitan, 12 km (7 miles) beyond their forward front line and the next target for fighters who took the port city of Misrata.
“There’s a lot of activity inside,” he said, referring to the level of support in Zlitan for the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.
Swahili, sunglasses pushed back on his head into long, greasy hair, said hoisting the flag was a gesture of support for those wanting to join the rebels in the civil war.
The rebels from Misrata are intent on stirring rebellion in Zlitan, some 160 km east of the prize of Tripoli.
But their own advance west, having wrested Misrata itself from forces loyal to Gaddafi, is proving painfully slow and increasingly bloody.
On Sunday, they claimed a couple of bullet-pocked homes and an orchard a few hundred meters from their positions about midway between Misrata and Zlitan.
Rebels driving diggers cut sandy paths through the farmland and olive groves of this coastal region to defend small gains.
Shipping containers from Misrata port, the city’s lifeline once besieged by Gaddafi’s artillery, are dragged around the front to block country roads, great tracts of earth shifted to provide cover for rebels trying to advance across fields.
With only limited artillery, the rebels resort to using raiding parties to do damage, darting beyond the frontline to mount ambushes or attack tanks with rocket-propelled grenades.
On Sunday, in the desert some 30 kilometers to the south of Misrata, rebels said a raid had captured at least 10 pro-Gaddafi soldiers, several of them gravely wounded.
Later in the day, however, doctors were mopping blood from the floor of a makeshift hospital at the western front in Dafniya after advancing rebel units ran into the rockets and mortars of pro-Gaddafi forces.
Six were killed and around 40 wounded. Two of the dead lay on the floor of the main Hekma hospital in Misrata, wrapped in the rebel colors of green, red and black.
In the next room was a woman in a body bag, killed when rebels pressing toward Zlitan on foot clashed with pro-Gaddafi forces using her home as an artillery position, rebels said.
They extracted the rest of the family, veiled women and frightened children huddled in the back of a pick-up truck.
“We have brought them to safety,” said a smiling rebel apparently in his teens. The family just appeared scared and confused.
The men of Misrata fighting to end Gaddafi’s rule say Zlitan wants to rise up but is being choked by government “militias” to prevent the uprising from nearing Tripoli.
They say some in Zlitan have already taken up arms. The information is impossible to verify. Rebels and doctors at the front talk of Zlitan men training in Misrata, some of them fighting at the front.
But in deeply tribal Libya, an advance by Misrata rebels on a neighboring town could be perceived by its residents as an act of aggression, bringing the war and its inevitable destruction to their doorstep.
Rebels say they are sensitive to the risk.
“We are here to make sure Zlitan is ready to fight,” said a senior rebel, who gave his name as Mohammed.
“We want the Zlitan people to fight, so that there is no civil conflict between us.”
Their own advance has so far been checked by the heavy artillery and tanks of pro-Gaddafi forces. On Friday, 31 rebels were killed and more than 100 wounded in a barrage of rockets and tank rounds near the Dafniya front.
Rebel commanders question the strategy of NATO, its warplanes heard frequently above the battle. They say the Western alliance, almost three months into its air campaign, is not striking enough, and is holding back the rebels to avoid blurring lines between the forces.
There has been no sign of the French and British attack helicopters deployed into the war to better target tanks and artillery often positioned near civilian buildings or hidden under trees.
In the orchard claimed on Sunday, the blackened hulk of a Russian-made tank sat among the trees just yards from a family home, an unlikely target for NATO pilots anxious to avoid civilian casualties.
Instead, the tank was destroyed the day before by a rebel unit that pushed beyond the front.
Scattered on the ground around it were signs of a hasty retreat — jeans, t-shirts, filthy mattresses.
The scene suggested the men fighting for Gaddafi live no better than the rebels trying since February to oust him. There were very few items of military clothing.
Swahili said he would take his unit forward through the olive groves and palm trees to the main coastal highway where the sides face off at a distance of several kilometers.
“It’s going to be risky,” he said of the operation to advance the rebel roadblock.
By early evening he was at the Hekma hospital. “I lost one man,” he said, but the rebels claimed to have won ground.