ZINTAN, Libya—Rebel fighters have penetrated Libya’s southwest desert and pulled within 80 miles of Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s southern stronghold, opening a new front and suggesting the strongman’s grip is slipping even in areas believed firmly in his control.
The rebels captured a small village south of Sebha on Monday. The fall of Sebha, one of Col. Gadhafi’s three regional power centers, would be a huge symbolic and strategic blow.
The city of 130,000 is a logistics hub for the regime, channeling food, fuel and other war supplies northward from southern farmlands and neighboring Algeria, Chad and Niger, said rebel leaders.
With the latest offensive, rebels have now made progress on every front of the war.
Despite the advance, the force threatening Sebha is hundreds of miles south of Tripoli and poses no direct threat to the capital, where Col. Gadhafi and his family are still clinging to power.
Even if the rebels only threaten Sebha, which Col. Gadhafi has been able to leave lightly defended until now thanks to strong tribal support in the area, it could force him to redeploy units battling elsewhere to defend the city, further stretching his already battered forces.
Many of Col. Gadhafi’s most loyal commanders and fighters hail from Sebha and may feel compelled to abandon the fight on distant fronts to protect their homes and families, rebel leaders said.
The uprising began in eastern Libya in late February and quickly spread to other parts of the country. Col. Gadhafi moved aggressively to crush the rebellion, but the intervention of North Atlantic Treaty Organization powers in late March tipped the war’s tide in the rebels’ favor. The conflict appeared to be at a stalemate for months as the ill-equipped rebels struggled to organize effective attacks on Gadhafi-held territory.
But in recent weeks, rebels made significant inroads. In the Western Mountains, they have advanced to within 35 miles of Tripoli.
In the besieged coastal city of Misrata, they have steadily pushed back Col. Gadhafi’s fighters.
On Wednesday, Misrata’s rebels resumed an offensive against neighboring Zlitan. And in the east the rebels are in the midst of an offensive to take the oil city of Brega.
On Wednesday, Libyan rebel leaders met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris and asked him to support their plans to mount a military offensive on Tripoli aimed at toppling Col. Gadhafi.
The delegation of rebel chiefs, which included senior officers from Misrata and a member of Libya’s National Transitional Council, the main opposition group to Col. Gadhafi, said they needed more weapons and logistical assistance to oust the longtime leader.
The previous day, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the civilian head of NATO, praised the rebels’ progress in an interview at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
“The opposition forces are now more experienced, better trained, better coordinated,” he said. The situation on the ground is “absolutely not a stalemate,” he said, adding Col. Gadhafi’s forces have suffered “a very, very clear weakening.”
Due to poor communications networks, lack of Internet and its remote desert location, southern Libya has received scant attention during the Libyan uprising. Reaching residents in southern Libya remains tremendously difficult.
This account of the southern offensive has been pieced together based on interviews with residents of southern Libya, rebel commanders on the ground in the south and in the Western Mountains, Libyan activists with friends and family living in southern Libya, as well as rebel officials who represent the south.
While the details are impossible to independently confirm, those interviewed gave similar accounts.
The rebel fighting force that is now rumbling through the southwestern desert was first mustered in late May and early June in the southeastern oasis city of Kufra. A resident of the southern town of Al Qatrun, which rebels took last week, estimated the force includes 60 to 65 4X4 vehicles and as many as 300 fighters.
Earlier this month, the force captured a remote desert airfield and army outpost called Al Wigh, near Libya’s borders with Chad and Niger, and soon after seized the Tummu border crossing with Chad.
The force began advancing north toward Sebha, and last week, the force took the village of Qatron without a fight. On Sunday, pro-Gadhafi fighters attacked the advancing rebels, said a resident of the village and a rebel commander on the ground, Ramadan Al-Alakie.
The rebel fighters repulsed the attack and pressed their advance, both men said.
The retreating Gadhafi forces concentrated in Taraghin, the hometown of Bashir Salah, Col. Gadhafi’s chief of staff, to block the rebel advance to Sebha. The rebel force simply went around the town, and on Monday took control of the tiny village of Umm Al-Aranib, they said.
Now, just 80 miles of empty desert and one tiny village stand between the rebels and Sebha.
Through the first months of the uprising, little information leaked out from Sebha, where the powerful Magarha and Col. Gadhafi’s own Gadhadfa tribes, both pillars of his regime, hold sway. It was long thought that the city was such a fierce bastion of pro-Gadhafi support that it was all but impregnable.
But in recent weeks, cracks have begun to show in Sebha.
The arrest in May of a small group of high school students who displayed the rebel independence flag at school angered powerful families in Sebha, said Khalid Al-Humeida, a Libyan Ph.D. student in Britain who spent the past 15 years living in Sebha and has friends and relatives still there.
The students, whose whereabouts remain unknown, hailed from families with long histories of loyalty to Col. Gadhafi. When family elders appealed to local security commanders to release their sons or even for information on their whereabouts, arguing that they were simply misguided teenagers, they were ignored, said Mr. Humeida.
Activists from Sebha say the city isn’t a pro-Gadhafi bastion anymore. “Gadhafi’s support in the city is not as strong as people think,” said Mr. Humeida.
Charles Levinson for The Wall Street Journal