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Libyan rebels attack Tripoli, with NATO help

Libyan rebels said they launched an attack on Tripoli in coordination with NATO late Saturday, and Associated Press reporters heard unusually heavy gunfire and explosions in the capital. The fighting erupted just hours after the opposition captured the key city of Zawiya nearby.

Gunbattles and mortar rounds were heard clearly at the hotel where foreign correspondents stay in the capital. Explosions also sounded in the same area as NATO aircraft carried out heavy bombing runs after nightfall.

"We planned this operation with NATO, our Arab associates and our rebel fighters in Tripoli with commanders in Benghazi," Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, the head of the rebel leadership council, told the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera. Benghazi, hundreds of miles east of Tripoli, is the rebels' de facto capital.

Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim appeared on Libyan television to deny that there was an uprising in Tripoli.

"Sure, there were some armed militants who escaped into some neighborhoods, and there were some scuffles, but we dealt with it within a half hour, and it is now calm," he said.

The claims from both sides could not immediately be independently verified.

Rebels fighting to oust Gadhafi have scored a number of victories in the six-month civil war, only to see towns fall out of their hands. Now the momentum appears to have firmly swung in the opposition's favor after months of near-deadlock.

Col. Fadlallah Haroun, a military commander in Benghazi, said the battles marked the beginning of Operation Mermaid -- a nickname for Tripoli. He also said the assault was coordinated with NATO. Haroun told the AP that weapons were assembled and sent by tugboats Friday night to Tripoli.

"The fighters in Tripoli are rising up in two places at the moment -- some are in the Tajoura neighborhood, and the other is near the Matiga [international] airport," he told the Arabic satellite channel al-Jazeera. Tajoura has been known since the beginning of the uprising in February as the Tripoli neighborhood most strongly opposed to Moammar Gadhafi's regime.

Earlier Saturday, the government organized a trip for reporters to the airport to show them it was still in government hands.

The head of the rebel's leadership council said they chose to start the assault on Tripoli on the 20th day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which fell on Saturday. The date marks the ancient Islamic Battle of Badr, when Muslims conquered the holy city of Mecca in A.D. 624.

A representative for Tripoli on the rebel leadership council told the AP that rebels were surrounding almost every neighborhood in the capital, and there was especially heavy fighting in Fashloum, Tajoura and Souq al-Jomaa.

"We don't have exact numbers yet, but we are hearing that many fighters have fallen -- very likely over 100," said Mohammed al-Harizi.

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