Rebel fighters in Libya have claimed to have the country's leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi trapped in the capital, Tripoli, after advancing into strategically key towns.
A spokesman for the rebels said they were in "full control" of the towns of Sorman, west of Tripoli, and Gharyan, 80 kilometers to the south. Fighting was continuing in Zawiya, just 50 kilometers west of Tripoli, where rebels advanced over the weekend.
The towns' capture would deal an important psychological blow to the Qaddafi regime, which has been fighting a bloody campaign against the NATO-backed rebels for six months.
Meanwhile, officials in Egypt said the Libyan interior minister, Nasr al-Mabrouk Abdullah, had arrived with his family in Cairo amid reports that he was abandoning Qaddafi.
On August 14, rebels hoisted their flag near the main market in Zawiya and around 50 antigovernment fighters were seen shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is great), suggesting that the town had fallen.
However, Qaddafi forces remained, some of them snipers stationed on rooftops, and the sound of gunfire reverberated through the town.
The rebel advances over the past few days out of the western mountains near Tunisia into Zawiya on the Mediterranean coast and other nearby towns marked the most significant gains after months of stalemate in the civil war. In a sign of growing confidence, rebel leaders said they hope to take Tripoli before the end of this month, an ambitious goal.
Colonel Jumma Ibrahim, a rebel spokesman in the western mountains, said his fighters are moving closer to blocking major supply routes to Tripoli from the south and west. The routes are critical for moving food, fuel, and weapons over land to the capital.
"This means we are choking Qaddafi," he said. "He only has the sea."
Omar Obeid, field commander for the Sabratha area, 32 kilometers west of Zawiya on the coast, said rebels have taken up positions in houses along a major supply route there that connects the Ras Ajdir border crossing with Tunisia to Tripoli. The same road runs through Zawiya, where rebels could also block it if they manage to take control of the city.
'Pick Up Your Weapons'
However, in what was depicted as a live speech -- his first public address since rebel forces began their latest offensive -- Qaddafi made light of the situation and called on his supporters to "liberate Libya from the traitors."
"The Libyan people will remain and the Fateh revolution [which brought Qaddafi to power in 1969] will remain," he said. "Move forward, challenge, pick up your weapons, go to the fight for liberating Libya inch by inch from the traitors and from NATO. Get ready for the fight. ... The blood of martyrs is fuel for the battlefield."
However, in an apparent sign of Qaddafi's increasing isolation, the address was delivered over a poor quality telephone line and broadcast by state television in audio only.
Late on August 14, Qaddafi's representatives were said to be holding talks with rebels in a hotel on the southern Tunisian island of Djerba, Reuters reported.
Separately, the Qaddafi regime was hit by what appeared to be the highest-level defection in months after Egyptian sources said Nasser al-Mabrouk Abdullah, described as interior minister, flew to Cairo airport with nine relatives, from Djerba. He told officials he was on holiday. There was no immediate comment from Tripoli but officials at the Libyan embassy in Cairo said they were unaware of his plans to visit Egypt.
The apparent defection came after the official government spokesman, Mousa Ibrahim, lashed out at Western leaders and the media and accused them of spreading rumors that Qaddafi's government was negotiating over his departure from Libya.
"This information is absolutely incorrect and it is part of a media war against us," he said. "Their target is to confuse us, break our spirit and shake our morale. The leader is here in Libya, fighting for the freedom of our nation. He will not leave Libya."
Egyptian officials said Libyan Interior Minister Abdullah had arrived with nine members of his family. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the minister arrived on a special plane from Tunisia and told Egyptian officials that he was "on a tourist visit."
Talks In Tunisia
Meanwhile, in related news, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's envoy for Libya flew into Tunisia on August 15, saying he would be joining talks between rebels and Muammar Qaddafi's government.
Jordan's former foreign minister, Abdul Ilah al-Khatib, said negotiations on Libya's future would be taking place in a hotel in the capital, Tunis.
Earlier, unnamed sources close to Tunisian security services said representatives of the two warring sides had met on the Tunisian island of Djerba.
compiled from agency reports