By Michael Georgy
HAWAMID, Libya (Reuters) - Rebels have encircled Muammar Gaddafi's last stronghold in Libya's Western Mountains region and hope to seize it soon, a commander said on Saturday.
Rebel tanks fired at Tiji, where an estimated 500 government troops are stationed, and the blasts could be heard from nearby Hawamid, a town 200 km (125 miles) southwest of Tripoli. Hawamid was captured on Thursday in a new anti-Gaddafi offensive.
"We have Tiji surrounded and we hope to take it by the end of the day," rebel commander Nasir al Hamdi, a former colonel in Gaddafi's police force, told Reuters as gunfire crackled in the distance and he surveyed a battleground scattered with tank shell casings and anti-aircraft bullets.
Despite inferior firepower and little experience, rebels this week took several towns and villages where government forces had been dug in along plains below the Western Mountains.
Soldiers captured in the offensive told Reuters the army had lost the will to fight and predicted that Gaddafi, who is also facing insurgents in the east of the oil-producing North African state, could fall in coming months, or even weeks.
Control of Tiji would give the rebels a strategic and psychological boost. It could make it easier for the insurgents, who hold a chain of towns stretching more than 200 km across a bleak mountain plateau from the Tunisian border, to gain access to an important highway leading to Tripoli.
Insurgents in the Western Mountains, who have been bitterly divided along ethnic lines, seemed to have improved coordination enough to work together in large numbers.
In the assault on Hawamid, for instance, hundreds of rebels in pickup trucks backed by three tanks sped down mountain roads toward the town and cut it off from government troops in other areas.
"It was very quick," explained Hamdi, standing on a dirt fortification where he said hundreds of government soldiers and militiamen had taken up positions.