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Libyan state TV airs footage of Col Gaddafi

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi moved to quash intense speculation that he had been injured or killed by Nato bombs on Wednesday as rebels celebrated their first significant advance in weeks of fighting.

The Libyan leader staged a sudden late-night appearance on Libyan state television, his first in almost twelve days. He had not previously appeared in public since April 30, the day of the Nato air strikes which killed his youngest son, Saif al-Arab Gaddafi. He did not attend Saif's funeral last week.

The speech, which Libyan officials said had been recorded at 8pm on Wednesday night, was aired at around 11.30pm in the capital, Tripoli. It showed Gaddafi, wearing a dark robe and a pair of dark glasses, addressing tribal leaders. He spoke slowly and hesitantly and remained seated throughout the speech.

The event appeared to have been recorded in a private room of the Tripoli hotel occupied by Western journalists in a sign of Gaddafi's extreme sensitivity about the chance of a Nato attack.

Several members of his audience were observed arriving at the hotel on Wednesday night, though it was not at that stage clear why they were there.

Rebel forces, meanwhile, took Misurata airport after a lengthy battle with government troops. The victory, if sustained, could significantly ease the city's siege, allowing supplies and other forces to be flown in to the rebel enclave. Large quantities of weapons and ammunition were also seized.

Wild celebrations erupted in Misurata. Ambulances drove around, sirens wailing, as convoys of machine-gun trucks paraded past with their occupants cheering and firing in the air. "God is great!" they chanted.

In western Misurata, thousands of residents emerged from hiding. Roads which had been almost deserted were clogged by traffic jams.

Salah Badi, who commanded the assault on the airport, said Gaddafi's officers had retreated and forced soldiers to stay. Some tried to carry on the fight, but most tried to leave in civilian clothes.

Buoyed up by their gains, rebels rejected a call by the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, for a ceasefire. "We don't trust Gaddafi ... This is not the time for a ceasefire because he never respects it," said a rebel spokesman called Abdulrahman, speaking by telephone from Zintan in the Western Mountains region.

"He bombards civilians immediately after his regime speaks of willingness to observe a ceasefire," the spokesman said, adding that Gaddafi's forces fired 20-25 Grad missiles at rebels on Wednesday, killing one and wounding three others.

Gaddafi's government has made several ceasefire declarations but continued attacks on Misurata and other rebel-held areas including the Western Mountains near the Tunisian border.

The rebels claimed that they had also forced government troops about ten miles from Misurata and were readying to move on Zliten, the next major town on the road to Tripoli, about fifty miles east of the capital.

Haj Mohammed, a rebel commander, said: "Every day we manage to advance along the coastal road toward Zliten. Yesterday 10 miles, today only two, but the advance is unstoppable."

He said rebel positions were now only six miles away from Zliten and that, after resting, they will attempt to continue their advance.