Libyan government forces tapped into their stores of Scud missiles during the weekend, firing one for the first time in this year's conflict with rebels, but hurting no one, U.S. defense officials said Monday.
The missile launch was detected by U.S. forces shortly after midnight Sunday, and the Scud landed in the desert about 50 miles outside Brega, said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations.
Rebel and government forces have battled over the strategic port city of Brega throughout the conflict, and control has swung back and forth between the two sides.
The strike comes as rebel forces continue to advance, working in recent days to block vital supply routes around Tripoli. The Obama administration said Monday that it is encouraged by recent rebel progress but stopped short of predicting victory for the opposition forces after months of inconclusive battles.
According to the military, the Scud missile was launched from a location about 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Surt, a city on the Mediterranean coast about 230 miles (370 kilometers) east of Tripoli. Noting that Scuds are not precision guided missiles, officials said they could not tell whether Brega was the target.
Brega is about 450 miles (725 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli.
Early in the conflict, NATO and U.S. forces targeted sites around the country where Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi stored surface-to-surface missiles like Scuds, largely because they worried that he would use them to target areas beyond his control.
The military intervention in Libya began March 19, after the U.N. authorized action to protect Libyan civilians from attacks by government forces. NATO took over the mission in early April, but the U.S. has continued to provide jet fighters and drones, as well as war ships off the coast.
Two senior U.S. officials said it is too soon to tell whether the Scud strike was a singular incident or if it represented a new phase of fighting. Scuds have a range of up to 500 miles (805 kilometers).
Rebels approach Tripoli
The rebels' push into the strategic city of Zawiya on Saturday brought them within 30 miles of Tripoli, the closest they have ever gotten. After three days of fierce battles for the city of 200,000 on the Mediterranean coast, rebel commanders said they controlled the south and west of the city and were fighting for the refineries. Oil-rich Libya's only functioning refineries are in Zawiya.
Nuri el-Bouaisi, an oil production engineer in the city, said rebels had cut off pipelines that transport gasoline and diesel fuel to Tripoli.
"We shut down all four pipelines to Tripoli," said el-Bouaisi, whose claim could not be verified.
The rebels are also determined to cut key supply routes to Tripoli from the Ras Ajdir border crossing with Tunisia in the west and from the south, where Libya borders Chad and Niger. These are critical lifelines with NATO imposing a no-fly zone over the country.
Over the past two days, a number of rebel officials have claimed that they either cut or were close to cutting those two routes. However that could not be immediately confirmed.
In addition to gaining a foothold in Zawiya, the rebels claimed Sunday to have taken two towns near Tripoli on those key supply roads — Gharyan, 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of the capital and Surman, less than 10 miles west of Zawiya.
Dardira, manning a defensive position just south of Surman, said rebels were still clashing in the Sabratha area, 20 miles (32 kilometers) west of Zawiya on the coast.
The rebel advance was raising fears among Tripoli residents over the prospect that fighting might soon reach the capital. Long convoys of cars carrying civilians from the capital and other cities along the coast headed south to the western mountain range, a rebel stronghold near the border with Tunisia now considered a safe haven.
"We are afraid of whatever is coming," said Mohammed Bilkheir, an accountant escaping Tripoli with his family. He said he was leaving to stay with relatives in the western mountains, fearing battles would break out in Tripoli.
Tripoli residents heading south said life was becoming increasingly difficult, with rising food prices, shortages of fuel and cash, as well as power cuts. Drivers took back roads to avoid being stopped by regime forces, they said.
Toward the end of their journey, they stopped at a desert checkpoint near the mountain range, registering their names with rebel troops before moving on. More than 150 families have made the drive south on Monday, said a rebel fighter keeping the list.
Gadhafi fights back
Gadhafi forces fought the rebels hard in Zawiya on Monday to try to push them back and prevent them for consolidating their gains. Col. Jumma Ibrahim, a rebel spokesman, said regime troops still controlled the eastern part of the city, including the main hospital there.
Gadhafi's troops fired dozens of artillery shells and Grad rockets, and the loud booms sounded across the city. Six shells hit in quick succession in Bir Ghanam Street, which leads from the city center to the south. One shell struck a highway overpass and another hit near a small mosque along the street.
Dead and wounded were rushed to a small clinic on the outskirts of the city. Reporters at the clinic saw at least four dead bodies and at least 20 people with serious injuries, including one man with a leg torn open by shrapnel.
Rebels consolidated positions in some parts of Zawiya, but appeared to have lost ground in others, including on Bir Ghanam Street. On Sunday, the street bustled with cars, despite the crackle of nearby gunfire. However, on Monday, dozens of men sat pressed against walls for cover. Some of the men said they were waiting to join the fight, but that there were not enough weapons and ammunition.
Pickup trucks loaded with fighters shouting "Allahu Akbar," or God is Great, dashed to and from the city center. Other fighters rushed into the battle on foot, trying to hitch rides to get closer to the front lines.
On the diplomatic front, the U.N. special envoy for Libya, Abdelilah Al-Khatib, who has been trying to promote a cease-fire and political settlement of the conflict, held talks in Tunis Monday with Tunisia's prime minister and was scheduled to meet later with the foreign minister, U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said.
Asked whether he could confirm that officials from rebel-held Benghazi and government-controlled Tripoli were in Tunis to meet Al-Khatib, Haq replied: "What I can say is that he might meet with some Libyan personalities residing in Tunisia on the sidelines of his other meetings."
Meanwhile, the head of Libyan public security and former interior minister, Nassr al-Mabroul Abdullah, flew into Cairo on his private plane with nine family members, Egyptian airport officials said Monday.
A Tunisian security official said Abdullah had defected after entering Tunisia by land on Saturday and then flying to Cairo from the resort town of Djerba. He reportedly entered Egypt on a tourist visa and was not greeted by any Libyan embassy officials at the airport.
"We had no idea of his arrival, but he was in Tunisia on Sunday," a Libyan embassy official in Cairo told The Associated Press. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak to the media.
Unnamed envoys of Gadhafi's government were reported to have held talks with rebels at a Tunisian hotel on Sunday, on a possible resolution of the 6-month-old civil war.
The minister arrived after a weekend of significant advances by rebels from Libya's western mountains toward Gadhafi's stronghold of Tripoli.