Libyan rebels advanced on the capital, Tripoli, from the west on Monday, threatening to encircle dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who also had another top aide flee his crumbling regime.
In Washington, the White House cheered the rebel offensive, while the State Department confirmed reports that resistance leaders were holding talks with Gadhafi’s envoys in Tunisia. The rebels denied having any role in the talks.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that Gadhafi’s days are numbered,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
After six months of seesaw battles with Gadhafi forces, the rebels, aided by NATO firepower, have notched up significant victories in recent days.
They seized control of the western towns of Sabratha, Surman and Gharyan, the latter a mountain town 50 miles west of Tripoli that sits on the supply route between the Libyan capital and the southern part of the country. Fierce battles were being fought at Ras Adjir on the Tunisian border, which is located on another key supply route between Tunisia and Tripoli.
The rebels also continued to battle pockets of Col. Gadhafi’s troops in Zawiyah, a coastal city 30 miles west of Tripoli and the site of Libya’s only functioning oil refineries.
The regime waged a fierce battle for Zawiyah early in the uprising, and residents at the time described a massacre by pro-Gadhafi forces. Entire city blocks were razed.
On Monday, U.S. defense officials told wire-service reporters on condition of anonymity that Col. Gadhafi had begun using his arsenal of Scud missiles. American forces detected a Scud launch Sunday - the first of the Libyan civil war and a potentially significant escalation. The officials said the missile landed in the desert 50 miles from the key oil port of Brega, causing no apparent casualties.
The Tunisian government, meanwhile, sealed the border with Libya, cutting off a supply route to Tripoli, sources told The Washington Times.
In Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, rebels pushed east toward Zlitan and were confident that they would seize Brega within days. The rebels took control of the eastern half of Libya early in the uprising, which began in February, but have not been able to push west past Col. Gadhafi’s tribal stronghold Sirte.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the Obama administration is “watching, with considerable encouragement, the advances that the rebels have made.”
“I think what we are seeing is an effort by the rebels to choke off the access routes into Tripoli and to up the pressure on Gadhafi,” she told reporters at a press briefing in Washington.
Meanwhile, Nasr al-Mabrouk Abdullah, a former interior minister who played a key role in the interrogation of pro-democracy activists, fled to Cairo with nine members of his family.
While most media reports described Mr. Abdullah as an interior minister, Libyan sources told The Times that he left that post several years ago. More recently, Mr. Abdullah had been in charge of interrogating detained activists.
“He has a lot of blood on his hands,” Guma el-Gamaty, coordinator for the rebels’ National Transitional Council in Britain, said in a phone interview.
Mr. el-Gamaty described Mr. Abdullah as Col. Gadhafi’s henchman and loyal aide.
“Gadhafi relied on him for a lot of security operations to contain the opposition,” he said.
Mohamed, a rebel spokesman who gave only his first name, played down the significance of Mr. Abdullah’s defection, noting that Col. Gadhafi’s inner circle remains intact.
“The real defections that we want are from Gadhafi’s inner circle, his sons and his brother-in-law,” he said in an interview from Amman, Jordan.
Col. Gadhafi’s brother-in-law and intelligence chief, Abdullah Senussi, is wanted by the International Criminal Court to answer to war crimes allegations.
In a message on Libyan state TV, Col. Gadhafi dismissed the rebels’ victories and denounced them and NATO as “rats” and “colonizers.” He also called on the Libyan army to “prepare for battle.”
“The fact that Gadhafi went on TV and said our victories are not significant proves that they are significant. The fact is that Tripoli is now besieged,” said Mohamed, the rebel spokesman.
The rebels made their gains on the heels of the death of their military commander, Gen. Abdul Fatah Younes, who was killed under mysterious circumstances last month. A former member of the regime, he allegedly maintained close ties with the Gadhafis and had been summoned by the rebel council for questioning when he was killed.
On Monday, rebels and representatives of the regime reportedly were holding talks in the Tunisian resort island of Djerba.
Ms. Nuland, the State Department spokesman, said the discussions had been continuing for several weeks.
“They meet periodically in different places. Our understanding is that this latest round is ongoing even today and tonight in Tunisia. But generally, we’re in contact with the [rebel council] after these rounds for an update, and we would expect to be again,” she said.
However, representatives of the National Transitional Council said the council was not participating in the talks.
“There is absolutely no involvement of the council in any negotiations in Tunisia or anywhere else. These are rumors,” said Mr. el-Gamaty.
“Things are at a tipping point in Libya. The regime is much weaker and there is nothing that we in the council want to negotiate with Gadhafi about. He knows what we want,” he added.
Nabil Elarbi, a Libyan activist based in the United States, said conflicting reports on negotiations are likely an attempt by the regime to distract from the rebels’ recent victories.