Rebels launched a new offensive Saturday out of their stronghold in Libya's western mountains, battling regime forces in a drive toward the heartland of Moammar Gadhafi's rule on the Mediterranean coast.
Opening a new front, the rebels are aiming to break the deadlock going on for months and eventually fight their way to the capital, Tripoli.
Booms of shelling and rocket fire echoed from the front lines, centered around the town of Bir Ghanam, where rebel forces backed by tanks fought Gadhafi's troops. Later, witnesses saw flattened buildings presumably targeted in NATO airstrikes and three smoldering government tanks in the town.
Rebels are hoping for a breakthrough in the far west of Libya, frustrated with the stalemate in the center of the country, where their underequipped forces have been unable to budge the battle lines despite five months of NATO airstrikes on Gadhafi's military. Rebels control most of the eastern half of country, while Gadhafi's regime holds most of the west, centered around Tripoli.
At dawn, thousands of opposition fighters pushed out of the Nafusa Mountains, near the Tunisian border, into the coastal plain toward Zawiya and Sabratha, two key regime-held towns on the Mediterranean west of the capital. Bir Ghanam lies a little more than a third of the 50-mile distance to Zawiya.
Rebel commander Col. Jumma Ibrahim said opposition forces captured Bir Ghanam and had moved a few miles beyond it. He said they also advanced on a separate highway to Sabratha. On that highway, rebels came to within 18 miles of Libya's coastline, but their convoy then came under heavy fire, and they retreated, witnesses said.
The new assault is certain to meet tough resistance, as it would push right into the heartland of Gadhafi's control. Zawiya was the scene of a major uprising by anti-Gadhafi protesters early in the conflict. The protesters took over the city and drove out regime supporters but then were brutally crushed in a long, bloody siege.
Last week, the rebels said they hope to reach the Libyan capital before the end of the Muslim fasting holy month of Ramadan, which began Monday.