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Libya: NATO intensifying bombing to aid rebel push
AP Interview: Libyan official says NATO ramping up campaign to clear ground for rebel advance
By The Associated Press

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) ' A senior Libyan official is accusing NATO of intensifying its bombing of the country to lay the groundwork for a rebel advance toward the capital.

Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim told The Associated Press in an interview early Thursday that the alliance's increased bombings represent the "final phase" of its air campaign. But he says the push will fail and that civilians will be the ones to pay the price.

Kaim also says Libyan government forces have evidence that Colombian mercenaries funded by the west and its Gulf Arab allies have joined the rebel fighters trying to advance toward Tripoli from the key western city of Misrata.

NATO began airstrikes against Libya in March. It is operating under a U.N. mandate to protect civilians.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) ' Rebel fighters in western Libya seized two mountain towns from government troops Wednesday as their counterparts east of the capital Tripoli suffered heavy losses in intense fighting with government troops.

Meanwhile, the embattled regime of Moammar Gadhafi sought to show it remains in control of the country, laying out plans to try rebel leaders for treason in court next week.

In the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi, tens of thousands of rebel supporters poured into the city's main square for a rally aimed at sustaining momentum for their nearly five month-old uprising. Fighting began in February when a popular movement against Gadhafi quickly escalated into armed conflict.

The civil war has been largely deadlocked, with the rebels controlling the east and Gadhafi clinging to large parts of western Libya, but unable to retake rebel bridgeheads there. The rebels made some gains Wednesday, taking two more towns in the western Nafusa mountains and pushing further from the port city of Misrata, their main stronghold in the west, toward the town of Zlitan, 12 kilometers to the west.

Gadhafi's forces fired more than 500 rockets at rebel positions near Zlitan, from dawn until after nightfall, said Dr. Ayman Abu Shahma, a physician in Misrata. He said 18 rebel fighters were killed and 30 wounded Wednesday. He said two civilians, including a 12-year-old girl, also were killed when a rocket hit their Misrata house.

NATO, meanwhile, said it struck equipment used to refuel government military vehicles near the key eastern oil town of Brega, which has been a frequent site of clashes between rebel fighters and troops loyal to Gadhafi.

The alliance said its warplanes have destroyed 2,700 military targets, including 600 Libyan tanks and artillery guns and nearly 800 ammunition stores, since NATO began bombing Gadhafi-linked sites in March under a U.N. mandate to protect Libyan civilians.

Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned that Gadhafi's forces remain a threat. "Without NATO there would be a massacre. Gadhafi would be free to use his tanks and missiles on towns and markets," he said. "We will not let that happen."

NATO's campaign was intended to deliver a sharp, devastating blow. However, with the campaign dragging on inconclusively, there have been increasing international calls for a negotiated end to the war. The ragtag rebel forces to the east and south of Gadhafi's stronghold in the capital Tripoli have failed to achieve a breakthrough in recent months.

Still, rebel fighters in the Nafusa mountains southwest of Tripoli seized control Wednesday of two towns after pushing out government forces, a member of the local military council said.

Col. Gomaa Ibrahim said via Skype that rebel forces moved into Qawalish and Kikla on Wednesday morning, after a battle in which one rebel fighter was killed and five were injured. It was unclear if any government soldiers were killed.

While the two towns are small, their capture further expands the area seized from government troops in recent months by relatively small bands of mountain rebels. A string of similar victories has left rebels in control of most of the Nafusa mountains, bringing them within about 100 miles (160 kilometers) of Tripoli.

Most of Libya's rebel-held territory lies in the east, where the rebel's National Transitional Council runs the movement from its de facto capital in Benghazi. Rebels also control the western port city of Misrata, 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli.

NATO airstrikes, regime defections and increasing international isolation have eroded Gadhafi's grip on the country. His regime struck back Wednesday, saying it planned to charge rebel leaders with treason. A judge compiling the charges laid out his case against 21 rebel officials, including the National Transitional Council's head, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil. Defendants will be tried in absentia.

Rebel spokesman Jalal Galal dismissed the charges as a political stunt.

"He (Gadhafi) thinks it's a joke or a game, but now the people have awakened, and the people have spoken," he said in response to the allegations. "He has to stand trial for his crimes against humanity."

The charges include facilitating foreign intervention in Libya, providing aid to the enemy and seeking to topple Gadhafi.

Judge Khalifa Isa Khalifa told reporters in Tripoli that he will present the case before a special court presided over by a three-judge panel next week. His evidence includes witness testimony.

The allegations "amount to treason of the homeland of Libya," government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said. He added that those found guilty of treason could face the death penalty.

If the rebel leaders are convicted, Libya will seek international help, Khalifa said, such as warrants from Interpol to "demand that they are brought to justice."

That's a long shot at best. The rebels enjoy significant support from the West and several oil-rich Gulf Arab states.

Last week, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Sanoussi for alleged crimes against humanity. International prosecutors at the Netherlands-based court allege government troops fired on civilian protesters during anti-Gadhafi demonstrations inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year.

Libyan officials reject the ICC's authority, saying their special court will bring justice to anyone who committed crimes during the uprising. Khalifa declined to say whether this also meant Gadhafi and his inner circle.

"We are ready and prepared to investigate any person in this country if there are people who are willing to come to the (attorney general) with accusations or complaints," he said.

In rebel-held Benghazi, tens of thousands of demonstrators poured into Martyrs' Square for what observers described as one of the biggest rallies in months.

They waved the rebels' tricolor flag along with those of allied nations including Qatar, France and Britain. Others released colorful balloons and chanted slogans, including "Come on, Tripoli! Make this Friday the last day" ' a call to the capital's residents to rise up.


Hubbard reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Maggie Michael in Cairo, Rami al-Shaheibi in Benghazi and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed reporting.

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