We will conquer Tripoli by end of the month, say rebels
OFFICIALS from the regime of Muammar Gaddafi were in talks with a special United Nations envoy last night as rebels claimed that they would take Tripoli by the end of the month and the United States said the dictator's "days are numbered".
Abdel-Elah al-Khatib, the former Jordanian foreign minister appointed by the UN to try to negotiate an end to the conflict, said he was meeting representatives of both sides in Tunisia.
The rebel leaders' Transitional National Council denied that its representatives were involved, but no such claim came from the Gaddafi regime.
The rebels now believe that they have no need to offer concessions on their demand for Gaddafi to leave Libya or surrender, after cutting off his supply lines in the past four days.
Mansur Saif al-Nasser, their ambassador to France, said they hoped to have secured victory by the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan in two weeks' time.
"Our forces totally control Zawiyah, which will open the way to Tripoli," he said in a radio interview.
"This will allow the population there to revolt. We are entering a decisive phase. Soon we will liberate all of southern Libya. We hope to celebrate the final victory at the same time as the end of Ramadan."
NATO leaders are also increasingly confident that the war is moving towards an endgame. "I think the sense is that Gaddafi's days are numbered," Leon Panetta, the new US defence secretary, said in Washington.
Despite the widespread confidence Gaddafi will be ousted soon, bitter fighting continued in Zawiyah, the oil-refinery town 30 miles to the west of Tripoli which controls the supply route to Tunisia.
But the regime has shown increasing desperation in its claims to be able to survive.
Mussa Ibrahim, the government spokesman, confirmed former interior minister Nasser al-Mabrouk Abdullah, who arrived in Egypt with his family on Monday, had defected.
NATO also confirmed reports that the regime had fired a Scud missile at rebel positions. It missed and did no damage.
Col Roland Lavoie, a NATO spokesman, described the use of Scud missiles as "irresponsible" because of the threat of civilian casualties.
Mr Al-Khatib said he met "separately" with both sides of the conflict, adding that he was not part of rumoured, but heavily denied, direct talks between the two sides in Tunisia.
But, significantly, he said he might also meet a representative of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, a friend and ally of Gaddafi, while he was in Tunisia.
In the early days of the uprising against Gaddafi's rule, there were repeated reports that the Libyan leader might seek exile in the Latin American country. (© Daily Telegraph, London)