By RYAN LUCAS, Associated Press
BIN JAWWAD, Libya (AP) - Rebel forces on Monday fought their way to the doorstep of Moammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, a key government stronghold guarding the road to the capital Tripoli.
The lightning rebel advance of the past few days, backed by powerful international airstrikes, has restored to the opposition all the territory they lost over the past week and brought them to within 60 miles (100 miles) of this bastion of Gadhafi's power in the center of the country.
"Sirte will not be easy to take," said Gen. Hamdi Hassi, a rebel commander at the small town of Bin Jawwad, just 18 miles (30 kilometers) from the front. "Now because of NATO strikes on (the government's) heavy weapons, we're almost fighting with the same weapons, only we have Grad rockets now and they don't."
Libya's rebels have recovered hundreds of miles (kilometers) of flat, uninhabited territory at record speeds after Gadhafi's forces were forced to pull back by international air strikes that began March 19.
In a symbolic diplomatic victory for the opposition, the tiny state of Qatar recognized Libya's rebels as the legitimate representatives of the country - the first Arab state to do so.
Hassi said there was fighting now just outside the small hamlet of Nawfaliyah, 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Sirte and scouting parties had found the road ahead to be heavily mined.
He added that the current rebel strategy was to combine military assault with an attempt to win over some of the local tribes loyal to Gadhafi over to their side.
"There's Gadhafi and then there's circles around him of supporters, each circle is slowly peeling off and disappearing," Hassi said. "If they rise up it would make our job easier."
Witnesses in Sirte reported Monday there had been air strikes the night before and again early in the morning, but the town was quiet, and dozens of fighters loyal to Gadhafi could be seen roaming the streets.
Moving quickly westward, the advance retraced their steps in the first rebel march toward the capital that was stopped March 5 by Gadhafi's superior weaponry. But this time, the world's most powerful air forces have eased the way by pounding the government's military assets for the past week.
The east of the country shook off nearly 42 years of Gadhafi's rule in a series of popular demonstrations starting in mid-February and inspired by similar successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Gadhafi's forces crushed similar uprising in the west of the country.
Sirte is strategically located about halfway between the rebel-held east and the Gadhafi-controlled west along the Mediterranean coast. It is a center of support for Gadhafi and is expected to be difficult for rebels to take.
West of Sirte is the embattled city of Misrata, the sole place in rebel hands in the country's west. Residents reported fighting between rebels and Gadhafi loyalists who fired from tanks on residential areas.
Rida al-Montasser, of the media committee of Misrata, said that nine young men were killed and 23 others wounded when Gadhafi brigades shelled their position in the northwestern part of the city on Sunday night. He also said that the port was bombed.
Turkey's Anatolia new agency said a Turkish civilian ferry carrying 15 medics, three ambulances and medical equipment was heading for Misrata to help treat some 1,300 people injured in attacks there.
Meanwhile, international airstrikes have continued against Libya, including the southern town of Sebha, reported the state news agency. The area remains strongly loyal to Gadhafi and is a major transit point for ethnic Tuareg fighters from Mali and Niger fighting for the government.
JANA said the strikes destroyed a number of houses, though past attacks on Sabha, 385 miles (620 kilometers) south of Tripoli, targeted the airport and the flow of foreign fighters reinforcing the regime.
The rebels in past days retook two key oil complexes along the coastal highway and promised to quickly restart Libya's stalled oil exports, prompting a slight drop in the soaring price of crude oil to around $105 a barrel.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he could not offer a timetable for how long the Libya operation could last, as the Obama administration tried to bolster its case for bringing the United States into another war in the Muslim world.
The U.N. Security Council authorized the operation to protect Libyan civilians after Gadhafi launched attacks against the protesters who demanded that he step down. The airstrikes have crippled Gadhafi's forces, allowing rebels to advance less than two weeks after they had seemed at the brink of defeat.
The assault on Sirte, where most civilians are believed to support Gadhafi, however, potentially represents an expansion of the international mission to being more directly involved with regime change.
"This is the objective of the coalition now, it is not to protect civilians because now they are directly fighting against the armed forces," Khaled Kaim, the deputy foreign minister, said in the capital, Tripoli. "They are trying to push the country to the brink of a civil war."
The tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar, however, has formally recognized the rebels as the legitimate representatives of the country and promised to help them sell their crude oil on the international market.
Qatar has been well ahead of other Arab countries in embracing the rebels and is also participating in the U.N.-mandated no-fly zone over Libya.
Turkey, meanwhile, has confirmed that even as rebel forces advance on Sirte it has been working with the government and the opposition to set up a cease-fire.
"We are one of the very few countries that are speaking to both sides," Foreign Ministry Spokesman Selcuk Unal said, without confirming whether Turkey had offered to act as mediator.
Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also told reporters his country will take over the running of the airport in Benghazi to facilitate the transport of humanitarian aid to Libya. He did not say when, however.
Associated Press writer Christopher Torchia contributed to this report from Istanbul.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)