Libyan Rebels Seize 3 Western Towns From Qaddafi Troops

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BENGHAZI, Libya -- Libyan rebels forced government troops from three western towns and broke the siege on another, a rebel commander said Friday, and NATO pounded ten targets across the country.

The heavy bombing and rebel victory, plus the first publicized diplomatic contact between China and the rebel leadership, reflect the continued erosion of Muammar al-Qaddafi's power since the eruption in mid-February of uprisings to end his 42-year rule.

A rebel military leader said Friday local fighters won control of four towns in the western Nafusa mountain range, where government forces have besieged and randomly shelled rebel-held areas for months.

After weeks of siege, government forces drove about seven tanks and a number of armored vehicles into Yifran in early May and surrounded its near neighbor Galaa, Col. Jumaa Ibrahim of the region's rebel military council said via Skype.

Fighters who had fled then used their knowledge of area to chip away at the government forces, he said.

"They started with hit-and-run attacks," he said. "They know all the hills and valleys, so they were able to trick the brigades and destroy some of their vehicles."

On Friday, the fighters entered the town to find that the last government forces had fled the day before.

Rebel fighters also pushed government fighters from Shakshuk and Qasr al-Haj, two villages near a key road that runs along the mountain range's northern edge, Ibrahim said. The latter holds an important power station for local towns.

Ibrahim said rebel forces took the towns on Thursday then moved north to clash with Qaddafi forces in the village of Bir Ayyad on Friday. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

The small number of rebel fighters in the western mountains are unlikely to threaten Qaddafi's hold on Tripoli, 45 miles northwest, but the victories could bring relief to local residents by opening up roads between their communities. The western mountain population is tiny compared to the large rebel-held territories in east Libya.

Also Friday, at least 10 NATO airstrikes hit the capital and elsewhere in Libya. It was not immediately clear if there were any casualties.

Four early morning blasts shook central Tripoli, targeting a barracks near the sprawling compound where Qaddafi sometimes lives, said a government official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.

Six earlier strikes targeted a police station and a military base outside the capital, the official said.

A NATO spokeswoman, speaking by phone from Naples, said the alliance hit a storage facility for military vehicles in Qaddafi's compound. In a statement, NATO said it also targeted surface-to-air missile launchers and armored personnel carriers near Tripoli, as well as other targets elsewhere.

Also Friday, a U.N. official said the world body's refugee agency would meet with a Libyan woman who claimed she was gang-raped by Qaddafi's troops. She was deported Thursday from Qatar where she had sought refuge and was flown against her will to Benghazi, the official said. Benghazi is the Libyan rebels' de facto capital.

Speaking in Geneva, the official, Adrian Edwards, said his agency was with Iman el-Obeidi when she was taken from her Qatar hotel against her will. He said she is a recognized refugee, and her deportation violated international law.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington that the U.S. was "monitoring the situation" to ensure al-Obeidi's safety and make sure she finds "appropriate asylum."

In March, al-Obeidi rushed into Tripoli's Rixos Hotel where all foreign correspondents are forced to stay while covering the part of Libya under Qaddafi's control, and shouted out her story of being stopped at a a checkpoint, dragged away and gang-raped by soldiers. As she spoke emotionally and as photographers and reporters recorded her words, government minders, whose job is to escort reporters around the area, jumped her and dragged her away.

She disappeared for several days, then turned up in Tunisia and later Qatar. She was heard from little until Thursday, when she was suddenly expelled from Qatar and ended up in Benghazi, the Libyan rebels' de facto capital. No explanation was forthcoming from Qatar.

Rebel spokesman Jalal el-Gallal said al-Obeidi arrived in Benghazi by plane. "She's welcome to stay, this is her country," el-Gallal told The Associated Press.

Libyan authorities have alternately labeled al-Obeidi a drunk, a prostitute and a thief.

Al-Obeidi says she was targeted by Qaddafi's troops because she is from Benghazi, the rebel stronghold. Her rape claim could not be independently verified. The Associated Press identifies only rape victims who volunteer their names.

Human rights violations are one aspect of the rebels' complaints against the Qaddafi regime. This week a report by a U.N. body said it found evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by Qaddafi's government, and also charged that the rebels have committed abuses.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Friday that China's ambassador to Qatar recently met with the head of Libya's rebel council, the first known meeting between the two sides. China abstained in the U.N. Security Council vote authorizing NATO military action in Libya.

The conflict in Libya is nearly four months along, but the situation on the ground appears mostly stalemated. NATO airstrikes have kept the outgunned rebels from being overrun, but the rebels have been unable to mount an effective offensive against Qaddafi's better equipped armed forces.

Qaddafi's regime has been slowly crumbling from within. A significant number of army officers and several Cabinet ministers have defected, and most have expressed support for the opposition, but Qaddafi's hold on power shows little sign of loosening.

Qaddafi has been seen in public rarely and heard even less frequently since a NATO airstrike on his compound killed one of his sons on April 30. Questions are arising about the physical and mental state of the 69-year-old dictator, who has ruled Libya since 1969.

Rebels have turned down initiatives calling for cease-fires, insisting that Qaddafi and his sons must relinquish power and leave the country.