- - Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Libyan rebels on Tuesday said the popular uprising against longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi has entered a “decisive phase” and that they expect victory by the end of August.

Meanwhile, the U.N.’s special envoy for Libya said he was meeting with representatives on both sides of the civil war, a day after a White House spokesman said Col. Gadhafi’s “days are numbered.”

Still, rebels continued to deny that they are participating in the talks, as their NATO-backed forces pressed on in a dramatic advance that brought them with 30 miles of Col. Gadhafi’s stronghold in the capital, Tunisia.

“Our forces totally control Zawiyah [west of the capital], which will open the way to Tripoli,” said Mansur Saif al-Nasr, the rebel National Transitional Council’s envoy to Paris. “This will allow the population there to revolt.”

Zawiyah is a vital oil port on the Mediterranean coast, 25 miles west of Tripoli.

“We are entering a decisive phase. Soon we will liberate all of southern Libya. We hope to celebrate the final victory at the same time as the end of [the Muslim holy month of] Ramadan” at the end of August, Mr. al-Nasr told RFI radio.

“The population inside Tripoli is preparing for the uprising,” he said. “A few weeks ago, Gadhafi’s forces put down the revolt because they had air power and tanks, and our forces were not at the gates of Tripoli.

“Today, they have no more air power, no tanks and our forces are at the entry of Tripoli.”

The United States on Monday expressed optimism that the rebels are closing in on Col. Gadhafi, who has ruled for more than 40 years, with White House spokesman Jay Carney saying the increasingly isolated strongman’s “days are numbered.”

In an update on its operations, NATO said its warplanes hit tanks and an armed vehicle near Zawiyah on Monday.

NATO spokesman Canadian Air Force Col. Roland Lavoie also condemned the launch of a Scud missile by Gadhafi forces as “desperate” and “irresponsible.”

The missile was fired from some 50 miles south of the Gadhafi-loyal stronghold of Syrte, Col. Lavoie said.

It landed about three miles east of rebel-held territory near Brega, in “an area currently under the control of anti-Gadhafi forces,” but did not cause any casualties, he said.

Col. Lavoie called the missile “a weapon of terror” and said its use “against an urban or industrial area is utterly irresponsible.”

In contrast to the U.S. assessment, Col. Lavoie said forces loyal to Col. Gadhafi were retreating “often hurriedly,” but he also acknowledged that NATO’s Libya mission remains “far from over.”

A defiant Col. Gadhafi denied widespread rumors that he had fled the country and predicted victory.

“The end of the colonizer [NATO] is close and the end of the rats is close. [The rebels] flee from one house to another before the masses who are chasing them,” Col. Gadhafi declared in an audio message on Libyan television.

He called on his supporters to “prepare for the battle to liberate” the rest of the country.

His regime has denied it is in danger, insisting that its forces can retake towns and districts captured by the rebels in past days. The regime also has denied participating in talks with the rebels.

A Tunisian security official said the discussions late Monday centered on a “peaceful transition” in Libya.

The official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive subject, said the rebels reacted angrily to the proposal, with one member of their delegation throwing a shoe during the meeting to show his deep disdain.

U.N. envoy Abdel-Elah al-Khatib, Jordan’s former foreign minister, arrived in the Tunisian capital Tunis on Monday for the meetings with representatives of both Col. Gadhafi and the rebels.

He said there were no direct negotiations as he met the two sides separately in the neighboring country of Tunisia. He did not identify those he met or say what they discussed, speaking to reporters after a meeting Tuesday with Tunisian Foreign Minister Mouldi Kefi al-Khatib.

The Tunisian security official said the U.N. envoy also might met with a representative of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Mr. Chavez’s envoy has been on the Tunisian isle of Djerba for the past few days.

The U.N. denied its special envoy was taking part in the meetings. In a statement sent to the Associated Press in Tunis, it said it had “no concrete information about talks supposedly taking place in Tunisia.”

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