GUALISH, Libya (AFP) - Libyan rebels said they were preparing on Saturday to push forward in their drive on Tripoli from the south and west in a bid to isolate Moamer Kadhafi in the ever-closer capital.
But the embattled leader remained defiant, telling supporters on Friday that "the regime in Libya will not fall."
After heavy fighting, rebel fighters captured the desert hamlet of Gualish on Wednesday, taking them closer to the strategic garrison town Gharyan and the last major objective standing between them and Tripoli to the north.
For now, they have set their sights on Asablah, 17 kilometres (11 miles) north of Gualish on the road to Gharyan.
"Three times we tried to take Gualish before we succeeded," said rebel fighter Mohial Omar, 21. "That was the hardest part. Now it's going to be easier."
One of his comrades, 28-year-old Talal Ahmed, explained.
"We have plenty of rebels inside Asablah. NATO bombed there heavily on Friday and that stresses the (Kadhafi) soldiers and makes them more unsteady.
"We are just waiting for the go-ahead from NATO," he added.
Following that, the objective is to head straight for Gharyan, which lies on the main highway south out of Tripoli, 80 kilometres (50 miles) away, Ahmed said.
"Once we control that city, Kadhafi will no longer be able to receive weapons from the south, nor will he be able to flee in that direction. By attacking him on two or three fronts, we weaken him."
A second target in a three-pronged strategy is the coastal city of Zawiyah, one of the last major strongholds to the west of Tripoli.
Outside Bir Al-Ghanam, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) inland, rebels are also awaiting the nod from NATO so that they can take it and move forward.
"For now, we are in a defensive posture, but we are ready to attack whenever," said a rebel commander there, Fathi al-Aaeib. "We don't know the word 'retreat.'"
The authorities in Bir Al-Ghanam have been warned of an impending attack so that civilians can be evacuated.
But some of the fighters are impatient with NATO and its air campaign against Kadhafi armour.
"They have been very slow for the past few days," said Fathi. "I hope that they will concentrate on this region. The (Muslim fasting) month of Ramadan is coming (in August), and it's going to be more difficult to fight without eating."
In Brussels, NATO said on Saturday that it had struck targets in several areas of Libya the previous day, including tanks, rocket launching sites, artillery pieces, military storage facilities and command and control centres.
And from a base in Misrata, 215 kilometres (130 miles) east of the capital, the rebels reported on Friday battling to within two kilometres (one mile) of the centre of Zliten town with the loss of five dead and 17 wounded.
Wing Commander Mike Bracken, the NATO mission's military spokesman, said "anti-Kadhafi forces look to have the initiative and are able to launch successful attacks against pro-Kadhafi forces."
But loyalist troops still hold two key cities west of the capital -- Zawiyah and Zuwarah -- and are "rearming, regrouping and fighting in places such as Kikla, Misrata and Dafnia," he added.
The Libyan leader defiantly said in a radio address to supporters in the southern desert town of Sabha -- a loyalist stronghold -- that "the regime in Libya will not fall. It is based on the people, not on Kadhafi. NATO is wrong if it thinks it can topple the regime of this country.
"Our only choice is resistance -- we are on home ground and are not afraid of your war machine," he said, addressing NATO directly.
Two strong explosions rocked Tripoli on Friday night, an AFP journalist said, without being able to pinpoint the exact location.
Amid the fighting, the rival factions are in talks with the United Nations to try to avert an acute shortage of medical and other essential supplies caused by international sanctions, AFP has learned.
Well-placed UN officials said representatives of Libya's rebel council and the Kadhafi regime held talks last week with the World Health Organisation aimed at drawing up a list of items for sanctions relief.
Around 2,000 Chadian migrants -- mostly women and children -- trapped in the southern desert towns of Sabha and Gatroun are being flown back to their homeland, the International Organisation for Migration said on Saturday.
Meanwhile, four boats carrying about 1,000 migrants fleeing the conflict arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa on Friday night, Italy's ANSA news agency reported.
© 2011 AFP