- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 6, 2011

TRIPOLI, LIBYA Rebel fighters in western Libya seized two mountain towns from government troops Wednesday, while the embattled regime of Moammar Gadhafi said it would set up a special court to try rebel leaders for treason.

The rebel advances mark small progress in a largely deadlocked civil war. Fighting began nearly five months ago, when a popular uprising against Col. Gadhafi quickly escalated into armed conflict.

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

Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned that Col. 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 Col. 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 whether 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 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 southeast of Tripoli.

NATO airstrikes, regime defections and increasing international isolation have loosened Col. 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 a case against 21 rebel officials, including the National Transitional Council’s head, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil. Defendants will be tried in absentia.

Last week, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Col. Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Sanoussi for alleged crimes against humanity.