Tripoli: NATO warships off the Libyan coast fired on government forces near the strategic town of Zlitan where they are blocking rebels from advancing on the capital, a rebel spokesman said on Wednesday.
More than 90 days into a NATO bombing campaign, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi is refusing to relinquish power, leaving Western states counting on a combination of rebel advances on Tripoli and an uprising in the city itself to dislodge him.
"Last night, NATO struck from the sea at Gaddafi`s forces positioned in the coastal area," a rebel spokesman inside Zlitan, who identified himself as Mabrouk, told Reuters.
"The (pro-Gaddafi) brigades are preparing for the next days. They have stepped up deployment here. They have brought several rocket-launchers. The number of checkpoints is also growing. The situation is getting more difficult."
There was no immediate confirmation from NATO that its warships had been in action off the town. Zlitan is about 140 km (90 miles) east of Tripoli and lies between the capital and the rebel-held city of Misrata.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, whose country is one of the biggest contributors to the NATO campaign, said an International Criminal Court ruling this week to issue a warrant for Gaddafi`s arrest showed he was running out of options.
"Support for the regime within Libya is being eroded as we and our allies intensify the military, political and diplomatic pressure upon it," Hague told the British parliament.
"This (decision by the court) confirms that there can be no future for the Gaddafi regime leading Libya, and that any of its adherents who do not want to be associated with human rights violations should abandon it."
Before the conflict, many companies and governments courted Gaddafi to try to win lucrative contracts, especially those giving access to the country`s plentiful oil.
An official with the rebel leadership said if it came to power, it would review all contracts signed under Gaddafi.
"If there appears to be proof of commissions or financial corruption we will consider ourselves free from them (the contracts)," Mahmoud Shammam, a spokesman for the rebel National Transitional Council, told reporters in Paris.
Gaddafi`s officials say the NATO campaign is an act of colonial aggression aimed at stealing Libya`s oil. They have also dismissed the international arrest warrants, saying the court was a tool of the West.
Libyan state television said 15 people were killed when NATO air strikes hit a vegetable market on Tuesday in the town of Tawergha, south of Misrata.
A NATO spokesman denied the report, saying the alliance had not engaged any targets in Tawergha on Tuesday.
Libya`s conflict began four months ago when thousands of people rebelled against Gaddafi`s rule. It has since turned into the bloodiest of the "Arab Spring" uprisings that have been sweeping through the Middle East.
For the last several weeks, advances by the rebels towards Tripoli have been fitful, a source of frustration for some Western governments who had hoped to see a swift and decisive conclusion to the conflict.
Gaddafi remains entrenched in the capital while rebel fighters are struggling to break out of their main stronghold in the east, and in the west they are hemmed into the small pockets of territory which they control.
A French military spokesman confirmed a newspaper report that Paris had bolstered rebel forces in the Western Mountains region, south-west of Tripoli, by dropping weapons and munitions to them by parachute.
Rebel fighters in the same region scored a tactical victory on Tuesday when they salvaged weapons from a government arms depot after it had been bombed by NATO.
A Reuters photographer saw a convoy of rebels drive away from the depot, about 20 km southeast of the town of Zintan, with their pick-up trucks loaded with cases of ammunition and towing anti-aircraft guns.
On Sunday, rebels in the region made their biggest breakthrough in weeks to reach the outskirts of the town of Bir al-Ghanam, about 80 km south of Tripoli.
However, Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Ali Al-Mahmoudi, speaking after a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, dismissed any talk of rebel advances. "The situation in the Western Mountains is good and is under control," he said.