* Rebel predicts "breakthrough" within days against Gaddafi
* Air strip will allow rebels to bring supplies
* Rebels have scored successes in recent weeks
By Peter Graff
RHEBAT, Libya, July 12 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
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
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)