Libya conflict: Gaddafi forces 'launched Scud missile'

Rebel fighters talk to each other at the town of Brega, 15 August 2011
Image caption Control of the coastal oil town of Brega has swung back and forth

Military forces loyal to Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi have fired a Scud missile for the first time in the country's six-month conflict, US defence officials say.

They say it was launched from near the coastal city of Sirte and aimed at Brega - currently held by rebels - but landed harmlessly in the desert.

Pro-Gaddafi forces are believed to have more than 200 Scuds in their arsenal.

The move comes as the rebels continue a push towards the capital, Tripoli.

On Monday they advanced into two strategically important towns controlling access to the capital, from the west and the south.

Fighting was reported in both Zawiya, 50km (30 miles) west of Tripoli, and Gharyan, 80km (50 miles) to the south.

Medics outside Zawiya told Reuters news agency that sniper and mortar fire from government troops had left three civilians dead.

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Media captionLibya conflict: Rebels fight for key towns near Tripoli

'Days numbered'

Col Gaddafi's forces are still thought to control the Zawiya oil refinery - the only one in western Libya - where they get most of their fuel.

Earlier, the rebels said they had seized Gharyan - a town in the Nafusa Mountains that straddles the road connecting Tripoli with Sabha, Sorman - west along the road from Zawiya to Tunisia - and Tiji, although this has not been confirmed by residents.

If the towns fell to the rebels, they would have Tripoli surrounded by land, with Nato blocking sea access.

The BBC's Matthew Price in Tripoli says how much territory the rebels hold and for how long they can hold it is unclear.

But both rebels and the US said Col Gaddafi was coming under increasing pressure.

Rebel spokesman Ahmed Bani said the use of a Scud was a sign of desperation by the Libyan leader. "This man will use any weapon necessary to keep his regime going and resume his rule, even for few hours," he said.

"It's becoming increasingly clear that Gaddafi's days are numbered," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

Benjamin Barber, a Libya expert and fellow at the think tank Demos, said such claims were "wishful thinking".

"I don't think there's any particular reason for hope unless they're willing to do a negotiated settlement, but neither the opposition council, nor Nato, nor the United States seem very interested in that right now," he told the BBC World Service.

"There are a great many tribes and groups in and around Tripoli whose future depends on the survival of Gaddafi," he added.

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Media captionNato spokesman Col Roland Lavoie: "The Scud missile is not a new threat"

"I think this is more wishful thinking to cover the fact that the West, Europe, Nato, and the United States have been unwilling to make the sort of deals that were on the table that would have allowed Gaddafi to step away from power but stay in Libya."

In an audio message broadcast on Libyan state TV on Monday, Col Gaddafi was defiant. "The end of the coloniser is close and the end of the rats is close," he said.

He appealed to his supporters to "prepare for the battle to liberate" Libya.

Tunisia talks?

The Scud launch was detected by US forces, who say the missile was fired on Sunday morning and landed in the desert about 80km (50 miles) outside the strategic port of Brega.

There was no word from Libyan authorities.

The two sides have battled over Brega, with control swinging back and forth.

Scud missiles have a range of up to about 800km (500 miles) and can carry a warhead of up to about one tonne.

Earlier in the conflict the Nato-led coalition targeted rocket launchers and Scud missile containers near Sirte, saying the weapons could be used against civilians or on areas beyond Col Gaddafi's control.

Rebels denied that their National Transitional Council (NTC) has held talks with representatives of Col Gaddafi in Tunisia.

"There are no negotiations or talks between the Gaddafi regime and the NTC in Tunisia or anywhere else," Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, NTC vice-chairman, told AFP news agency.

A UN special envoy, Abdul Ilah al-Khatib, whose role is to negotiate a ceasefire, has arrived in Tunis, and sources in the Tunisian security services said the two sides had met at a hotel on the Mediterranean resort island of Djerba on Sunday.

A UN spokesman said he had "no concrete information" on any such talks.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands on Monday unfroze $143m (100m euros; £87m) in seized Libyan assets and gave the funds to the World Health Organization.

A spokesman for the Dutch government said the funds would be used to provide medicines and surgical equipment in areas held by rebels.