ZAWIYAH, LIBYA // Rebel fighters broke through enemy lines yesterday, closing in on Tripoli and its Green Square, the heart of Col Moammar Qaddafi's stronghold.
With the help of Nato, the rebels captured a strategic military base, home to the 32nd Brigade, also known as the Khamis brigade from the name of Col Qaddafi's 27-year-old son who heads it.
The rebels seized a large amount of heavy weapons and ammunition from the base, and then travelled in lorries and on foot to the Green Square, about 27 kilometres away.
Nato warplanes bombed the base before rebel forces stormed it after a brief gunfight with Col Qaddafi's loyalists, who fled the scene soon after the fighting started.
"We will encounter the main fighting and resistance on the road that lies ahead, behind the 27 line," said a rebel fighter.
A few hours after rebel forces launched their attack, a government spokesman said thousands of Libyans soldiers and volunteers were ready to take to the streets to protect Tripoli from the offensive.
"We have thousands of professional soldiers and thousands of volunteers protecting the city," Moussa Ibrahim said in Tripoli. "Tripoli is safe and completely under the control of armed people committees and volunteers."
Later, Libyan state television broadcast an audio message from Col Qaddafi in which he called the rebels "rats" and "traitors".
The rebels began the battle for Tripoli on Saturday night.
"We planned the operation with Nato, our Arab associates and rebels fighting in Tripoli with the coordination of Benghazi," said Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the head of the rebels' Transitional National Council in Benghazi.
Nato spokesman Col Roland Lavoie said yesterday that "the persistent and cumulative action of Nato is creating an obvious effect. Pro-Qaddafi forces are gradually losing their capabilities to command, to conduct and to sustain their actions".
Nato jets have flown nearly 20,000 sorties in the past month, including about 7,500 strike attacks, he said. Fighting also broke out in some neighbourhoods inside the Libyan capital yesterday and Saturday, while Nato bombed areas in the city, residents fleeing Tripoli said.
"There are clashes in every street and it is impossible to go around because Qaddafi's loyalist are stopping everybody at check points. All shops are closed and nobody is out," said a Tripoli resident from Bab Ben Ghashir on Saturday evening, who did not want to be named for security reasons. Yesterday, he fled the capital with his family.
Mukhtar Lahab, a rebel commander closing in on Tripoli and a former captain in Col Qaddafi's army, said his relatives inside the capital reported mass protests in four neighborhoods known as sympathetic to the opposition: Fashloum, Souk al-Jouma, Tajoura and Janzour. He said mosques there were rallying residents with chants of "Allahu Akbar" or "God is great," broadcast on loudspeakers.
Youssef Mohammed, a volunteer in one of the rebel brigades, said yesterday that the fighting was ignited in the city by cells of rebels waiting inside Tripoli.
"The fighting started Saturday night, immediately after the breaking of Ramadan fast, in different parts of town. Now they are fighting everywhere," said Sabri Ben Talab, a Tripoli resident who left the city to take his pregnant wife to a safer place. On Saturday night, he went to buy petrol for his car when the fighting broke out. The rebels stopped him on his way to the petrol station.
"They asked me to take a wounded Qaddafi fighter to their clinic in the Nofleen neighbourhood, in exchange for petrol," he said pointing at the back seat of his car, still covered in blood.
When the news of the fighting in Tripoli broke out, in Zawiyah, which is 50 kilometres from the capital, dozens of young men rushed to the streets to celebrate.
"This is freedom, now I want to go to Tripoli," said Habib Tibouni, a Zawiyah resident in his early 20s.
Rebels forces had taken control of Zawiyah on Friday night.
With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Reuters