MUAMMAR Gaddafi’s brutal grip on power is weakening after rebel forces retook the main oil districts of Libya and used the cover of western bombing raids to advance on the dictator’s home town.
Despite fresh political division in Europe that could yet undermine the operation, the rebels enjoyed their most sweeping gains since bombing began, while Britain claimed that the seizure of the oil fields would “change the political and economic dynamic”.
Anti-Gaddafi forces pushed westwards from the town of Bin Jawad, site of their humiliating defeat two weeks ago, and on towards Sirte, the gateway to the west of the country and Tripoli itself.
Witnesses saw a convoy of 20 military vehicles, including truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns, leaving the town and moving westwards towards Tripoli as the coalition began its latest assault from the skies.
NATO has taken full command of military operations from a US-led coalition, empowering alliance forces to stage ground strikes to protect civilians threatened by Gaddafi’s.
The capital Tripoli came under attack by what state television called “the colonial aggressor”.
Witnesses in the capital said the strikes targeted the road to the international airport, 10km outside the city, as well as the Ain Zara neighbourhood on its eastern outskirts.
It appeared that anti-aircraft guns were not brought into action in Sirte, which is the next target of the rebel forces as they continue their push on the road westwards to the capital Tripoli.
Earlier, AFP correspondents witnessed families fleeing west from the town following coalition air raids the previous night.
The pro-democracy forces, driven back by Colonel Gaddafi’s planes and bombers to their bastion of Benghazi in the east just a week ago, have now retaken all the major oil towns in the centre of the country and have even seized new territory.
On Saturday they recaptured Ajdabiya and Brega, 160km and 230km to the west.
Spurred on by the air war, they thrust another 100km past Brega to win Ras Lanuf, routing loyalists as they travelled.
The rebels also promised the uprising would not further hamper oil production in the areas under their control.
The oil fields in rebel-held territory are producing between 100,000 and 130,000 barrels a day, and the opposition plans to begin exporting oil “in less than a week”, a rebel representative said.
Last night, as the latest aerial assault continued over Sirte, another bombardment of Tripoli began.
Explosions were heard around the capital and anti-aircraft fire lit up the sky once more, less than an hour after NATO finally agreed to take control of all military operations from the US.
New divisions threatened a fresh diplomatic impasse, however, when it emerged that Italy and Germany were preparing a joint peace plan to be unveiled at tomorrow’s summit in London, calling for an immediate ceasefire.
Britain was taken aback when Franco Frattini, Italy’s foreign minister, announced in a newspaper interview that his government had begun work with Germany on a humanitarian corridor and safe haven for Colonel Gaddafi.
Mr Frattini said that he had spoken to the head of the opposition in Benghazi, calling for a political solution to the conflict and claiming that the rebels were ready to accept a ceasefire.
“We must promote an immediate ceasefire . . . to guarantee the population a future of liberty and democracy,” Mr Frattini told Italian television.
The plan will be put before world leaders at the conference, chaired by William Hague and attended by Hillary Clinton and other representatives from the alliance. It would see a ceasefire immediately followed by negotiations over the agreed departure of Colonel Gaddafi.
Britain and the US have rejected the option. They say bombing will continue until the colonel’s forces pull back from Ajdabiya, Misrata and Zawiya, establish water, electricity and gas supplies to all areas and allow humanitarian assistance to reach the Libyan people.
The Foreign Office played down the divisions, suggesting that Britain had, in effect, called for a ceasefire by signing up to UN Resolution 1973. But a government source betrayed irritation at the move by suggesting that the Italians, Libya’s former colonial masters, were “now trying to play catch-up” after other countries led the way.
The plans would apparently also put the dictator beyond the reach of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which is investigating him for alleged war crimes. David Cameron has repeatedly welcomed the investigation, saying that the whole Gaddafi regime must account for its crimes.
However, a government spokesman did refuse to rule out Britain embracing a deal that would see the dictator flee to safety, calling the situation “hypothetical” and stressing that Britain had not prescribed how he should leave power.
The British government has welcomed agreement that NATO should take command and control of all allied operations, following intense negotiations to overcome Turkey’s demands that it should have a veto to prevent civilian casualties.
Under the new rules of engagement, there will be a strict limit on the use of airstrikes to protect civilians and populated areas.
According to diplomats involved in the talks, the plan does not call for NATO to intervene in support of the armed rebellion seeking to topple the Gaddafi regime.
However, the Foreign Office insisted that the resolution would make no difference to its approach. The Italian intervention came after growing domestic pressure on Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister, whose domestic coalition partners claim that the conflict means “other countries get the oil while we get the illegal immigrants”.
Italy campaigned hard against France’s proposal to keep the operation out of NATO command, fearing that it would give France too strong a say.
Pressure intensified yesterday when a boat laden with African migrants from Libya arrived in Italy with three others on their way, the first such vessels to reach Europe since the start of the crisis.
The vessel, which was taking on water and suffering engine trouble, was intercepted by Italian coastguards and brought to the tiny outcrop of Linosa.