Libya's rebels on Saturday fought with regime troops for control of a key mountain town that is a strategic gateway on the road to Tripoli in an intensified western offensive aiming to push toward Moammar Gadhafi's stronghold in the capital.
They were also fighting near the Tunisia border.
Rebels earlier claimed control of Gharyan, saying they had moved into the center of the town and that Gadhafi's troops had withdrawn. But several hours later, regime forces returned with reinforcements and the two sides clashed, said rebel spokesman Gomma Ibrahim.
Gharyan lies at the northern end of the Nafusa Mountains, and Gadhafi's hold on the town had been a sticking point for rebels who have taken control of most of the range. The town lies on the main road leading directly from Nafusa to Tripoli, 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the north on the Mediterranean coast.
Rebels have been trying for weeks to take Gharyan, and NATO airstrikes have hit Gadhafi's forces several times in the area.
On Saturday morning, rebel fighters moved into the town and, alongside residents, battled for about four hours with the remaining regime forces in the town — mostly young fighters and mercenaries, said Ibrahim. The Gadhafi troops withdrew, but after a brief lull, the troops returned in intensified numbers, he said.
Ibrahim said that Gharyan residents had joined with the entering rebel fighters, in part out of anger that some 2,500 of the town's men had been arrested in recent months for voicing opposition to Gadhafi.
The claims could not immediately be confirmed independently.
"This is the biggest stop on the way to Tripoli, where we will topple down the tyrant and liberate all Libya," Ibrahim said.
Fighting near Tunisia
Gadhafi forces also clashed with rebels a few kilometers from the main border crossing into neighboring Tunisia, Tunisians close to the border told Reuters Saturday.
A businessman called Ali, who trades with Libya, said there were clashes at Abu Kammash, an industrial town on the Mediterranean coast about 10 km from the Ras Jdir border crossing, which is controlled by Gaddafi's forces.
"There is fighting at Abu Kammash. The Tunisian police have asked us not to go into Libya. I tried to go in but the clashes forced me to come back," the businessman told Reuters.
A second businessman from the border area, who did not want to be identified, said: "There are heavy clashes going on between the rebels and Gaddafi's forces to try to control the Ras Jdir crossing."
A third source, who was at the Ras Jdir crossing, said the pro-Gaddafi military had brought up heavy weapons, including tanks, to protect the checkpoint, which controls the main supply route for the Libyan capital, a vital lifeline for the government.
The capture of Gharyan would solidify the rebels' flank as they push ahead with a new offensive launched from further west in the Nafusa range, pushing down into the coastal plain where Gadhafi's forces have been concentrated. The rebels are hoping to take several cities along the coast before moving on to Tripoli.
Rebel commander Fathi el-Ayeb said his fighters were 10 miles (15 kilometers) from Gadhafi-held Zawiya, a key target in the offensive. He said the rebels scouts who returned from Zawiya claim the local residents there were waiting for the rebels to reach the city's outskirts to join their fight against Gadhafi.
"They are waiting for the rebels to come and they will join them," said el-Ayeb.
Advancing a further 6 miles (10 kilometers) in the direction of Zawiya, some 300 rebel fighters reached the district of Bir Shaeb. An Associated Press reporter saw more than 100 fighters resting under a grove of trees, eating watermelon and smoking as the boom of grad rockets could be heard in the distance.
Rebel fighters Mohammed Jirmi, a 23-year-old originally from Zawiya, said that they expect the city's residents to rise up and fight alongside the rebels when they reach the city's outskirts. However, another fighter who identified himself as Abdel-Salam said they are moving slowly because of an ammunition shortage.
In early March, Gadhafi's forces crushed an uprising in Zawiya, the nearest point to Tripoli to fall into rebel hands, in a punishing assault on the city. A group of rebels managed to flee to the Nafusa Mountains and link up with fighters there.
Dozens of Libyan families have been taking advantage of the fighting to flee Tripoli and head south into the mountains.
The families were making their way through desert back roads that appeared to be less guarded amid the fighting between rebels and Gadhafi's forces near Bir Ghanam, 50 miles (80 kilometers) southwest of Tripoli.
The rebels said they registered 55 families that fled Tripoli in the past three days for the Nafusa mountains. Many were originally from the west but had escaped to Tripoli when the fighting broke out in the mountains months ago.
One of those on the road, Sassi Ahmed, a 47-year-old social studies teacher, said he left Tripoli with his wife and six children because the situation in the capital was "very dangerous and frightening," with no gas or electricity.
Ahmed told The Associated Press the family piled up their belongings onto their car and sneaked out of the city in a convoy with at least five other families.
Another man, who would not give his name because he feared for relatives still in Tripoli, said Gadhafi's troops first turned him back from one road but he managed to find another way, traveling with his wife and two daughters.
Libya's revolt began in February, with the rebels quickly wresting control of much of the eastern half of the country, as well as pockets in the west. The conflict later settled into a stalemate with the rebels failing to budge the front lines in the east since April.
The assault from Nafusa is an attempt to try to circumvent the deadlock.
At the main front in the east, rebels fighting Gadhafi's forces claimed they captured part of a strategic oil terminal city of Brega that has repeatedly changed hands in the 6-month-old civil war.
The Benghazi-based rebels' military spokesman, Col. Ahmed Bani, said that rebel fighters are clashing with Gadhafi forces to take control over the rest of the city. "Very soon all Brega will be liberated," he said.