Libya rebel minister opens Western Mountains air link

Tue Jul 12, 2011 12:47pm EDT

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* Rebel predicts "breakthrough" within days against Gaddafi

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* Rebels have scored successes in recent weeks

By Peter Graff

RHEBAT, Libya, July 12 (Reuters) - A senior minister in the Libyan rebel Transitional National Council opened an airfield on Tuesday linking the rebel capital Benghazi with a remote Western Mountain stronghold south of Tripoli, and promised a military breakthrough within days.

Ali Tarhouni, oil and finance minister in the council opposing Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, arrived and departed by air at the Rhebat air strip, a stretch of mountain highway, where a giant yellow arrow painted on the tarmac marks out the runway, next to a blue and white shack flying the rebel flag.

He told Reuters he was bringing aid to the mountains, a region where the rebels have made significant military gains in the last few weeks against Gaddafi's forces and are preparing for another major advance.

"I am hoping you will hear very good news in the next 24-48 hours on all fronts, economic, military, all fronts."

Asked later to clarify, he said he said he was expecting a "military breakthrough" that would see Gaddafi driven from power by the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which begins in about two weeks.

Tarhouni landed at the airstrip in a jet with the words "Air Libya" painted on the side. According to its Internet site, Air Libya is a small private airline based in Benghazi.

The air strip could play a big role in resupplying the mountains. The area was once seen as a minor front in the five-month-old rebellion to topple Gaddafi, but is increasingly a strategic battlefield as the rebels press eastward from the Tunisian border towards the southern outskirts of the capital.

"The importance of this airport is bringing humanitarian aid and military supplies for our rebel brothers... in the Nafusa Mountains," said Mohammed al-Bujdidi, the rebel forces commander in the airport's vicinity. He was using the term many local people use to describe the region.

He said it was the third time the landing strip had been used, although it was the first time it has been publicly acknowledged.

Rebels in the mountains seized the village of Al-Qawalish from Gaddafi's forces last week and are pushing towards the town of Garyan which controls the main highway leading north to the capital.

The previous week, the mountain fighters drove Gaddafi's troops back to the village of Bir al-Ghanam on another road southeast of Tripoli.

The advances mean large parts of the mountain area are now outside the range of Gaddafi forces' artillery, allowing some degree of ordinary life to return to the region, though food and fuel are scarce.

"You go around to a lot of these small villages and you see that there is hardly anything to eat," said Tarhouni.

He repeated calls from the rebel council for Western countries to send economic aid, including frozen Libyan government funds, which he said had been repeatedly promised at international conferences but not yet made available.

"The problem is, I don't have any assistance. We've got a lot of promises. That's what we have."

In addition to their advances in the mountains, rebels are also pushing towards Tripoli along the coast road from their stronghold in the port of Misrata.

They have the assistance of NATO forces, which have been bombing Gaddafi-loyalist targets since March but have yet to deliver a decisive blow.

The Libyan leader describes the rebels as terrorists and criminals, and says the Western military intervention is a colonialist scheme to steal Libya's oil. (Editing by Tim Pearce)

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