Tripoli: Rebel fighters in western Libya seized two mountain towns from government troops Wednesday, while the embattled regime of Moammar Gaddafi 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 Gaddafi 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 Gaddafi-linked sites in March, under a UN mandate to protect Libyan civilians.
Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned that Gaddafi`s forces remain a threat. "Without NATO there would be a massacre. Gaddafi 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 Gaddafi`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 Gaddafi`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 leaders could not immediately be reached for comment.
The charges include facilitating foreign intervention in Libya, providing aid to the enemy and seeking to topple Gaddafi.
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 Gaddafi, 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-Gaddafi 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 Gaddafi 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.