Muammar Qaddafi’s tottering regime called Thursday for an immediate ceasefire in Libya, as rebels claimed control of a key oil refinery and warned of a bloodbath in the fight for Tripoli.
Rebels have been seeking to sever Tripoli’s supply lines from Tunisia to the west and to Colonel Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte in the east in a move they hope will cut off the capital, prompt defections and spark an uprising inside Tripoli.
Opposition forces said Thursday they had seized the refinery in the western town of Zawiyah, a key source of fuel supplies to the capital, and the last major barrier before they advance on Tripoli.
Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi Mahmudi, hotly disputed the claim, saying the refinery was “without doubt” still in loyalists’ hands.
Mr. Mahmudi told journalists in Tripoli that “the time has arrived for an immediate ceasefire.
“We are ready to begin a dialogue to put an end to the crisis immediately,” Mr. Mahmudi added, saying there had been “contact” in recent days to find a political solution soon.”
“If you are in favor of a peaceful solution, you will get some good news in the coming days,” he added.
A member of the rebels’ National Transitional Council (NTC), Wahid Bourchan, said Wednesday that “discussions” and not negotiations did take place this week between some embattled regime members and its rebel challengers in Tunisia.
Former French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin, meanwhile, told daily Le Parisien he had travelled to the Tunisian resort of Djerba for discussions with unnamed Libyan figures.
“I was indeed there, but I really can’t make any comment, as this might compromise the chances of these discussions being successful or useful,” he told the newspaper.
Mr. Mahmudi said no negotiations would touch on the fate of Col. Qaddafi, while rebel chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil was quoted as renewing his side’s rejection of any talks that do not envisage the departure from power of the strongman and his sons.
Abdel Jalil was speaking in an interview published in pan-Arab daily Asharq al Awsat in which he said the rebel campaign to cut off Tripoli was proceeding apace and that he feared a “veritable bloodbath” in a battle for the capital.
“Qaddafi will not go quietly; he will go amid a catastrophe that will touch him and his family,” he told the newspaper from his eastern bastion of Benghazi.
The Libyan leader, who has ruled the oil-rich North African nation for four decades, has consistently refused to step down and continues to rally his supporters to repel the enemy.
Abdel Jalil said he hoped to celebrate in Tripoli - a city of more than one million inhabitants - the feast of Eid al Fitr, which will cap the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan at the end of August.
In Zawiyah, rebels claimed they were in control of “most” of the strategically vital port and had “managed to gain control” its oil refinery by late Wednesday.
Field commander Mohammed Khalifa was more cautious, saying “freedom fighters” now controlled “most of the city (Zawiyah) except for the eastern part,” from which snipers and mortar fire harried the rebels.
The refinery, the only one in western Libya, is vital to the Qaddafi regime, as it supplies fuel to Tripoli.
Britain’s defense ministry said Thursday that Royal Air Force warplanes sank a vessel being used by Qaddafi’s forces near Zawiyah.
It said the loyalists had commandeered a tugboat as a naval patrol craft after NATO planes destroyed their armored vehicles.
“Since it was clear from their actions that these troops continued to pose a threat to the local population, the RAF patrol engaged the ship,” General Nick Pope, spokesman for the chief of Defense Staff, said in a statement.
Further west, another rebel commander, Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani, said that rebels were pushing toward the Tunisian border, an apparent bid to further strangle what limited supply lines remain for Qaddafi’s regime.
“Zabrata and Sorman are now entirely under our control,” he said on Wednesday, referring to two towns west of Zawiyah.
East of Tripoli, rebels moved toward a town that links the capital and Sirte – Col. Qaddafi’s hometown and a stronghold for his military.
On Thursday, the rebels said they had advanced some 80 kilometers south of Misrata on the road to Sirte.
And insurgent fighters claimed to have captured Murzuq, a key communications hub in the desert region of Sabha province, 500 kilometers south of the capital.
Mohammed Wardugu, speaking in Benghazi, said that after an hour of heavy fighting on Wednesday, “we took control of Murzuq and its military garrison.”