* Capturing town would raise rebel morale in stalemate
* Evidence suggests Gaddafi forces fled rebel advance (Freshens detail on fighting, paragraph 11)
By Michael Georgy
HAWAMID, Libya, July 30 (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 towards 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.
After rebel tanks fired on Tiji on Saturday morning, Gaddafi’s forces launched missiles towards a road winding down from a mountain, in an apparent attempt to prevent rebels attacking from a different direction.
Fighting eased during the stifling afternoon heat but resumed in the early evening. Gaddafi’s forces fired Grad missiles and plumes of smoke could be seen about 5 km from the front line.
Poor army morale may also have helped Gaddafi’s opponents, who come from all walks of life — from pharmacists to plumbers — to try to end his rule.
At a hospital in the town of Nalut, near Hawamid, about 20 wounded government soldiers lay in beds with mostly bullet wounds. Several predicted the veteran Libyan leader’s demise.
“Gaddafi is not going to last for more than a few months and he may go sooner,” Omar Mukhtar, 20, told Reuters. “Gaddafi told us we would be fighting foreigners who belong to al Qaeda. But we came here and discovered they are just Libyans like us.”
A few feet away, a brigadier from Gaddafi’s army with a bullet hole in his face pointed to his wound and groaned.
Tiji resident Abdel Jalil Omar said Gaddafi’s militiamen had offered people in the town money to fight and gave them AK-47 assault rifles every time the insurgents made gains in the Western Mountain region.
“I was unemployed. They gave me money so I agreed to fight the rebels,” said Jalil, who was shot in the shoulder. A rebel who overheard him started yelling and accused him of ransacking houses and helping soldiers steal televisions.
Many government troops fled Hawamid when the rebels advanced, ignoring graffiti scribbled by a soldier which said: “Capture the rats. Don’t be afraid of them”.
Gaddafi has said that the rebels fighting to end his four decades of rule were inspired by al Qaeda and has described them as rats in speeches.
The soldiers who were in Hawamid left behind boots, uniforms, food rations, blankets and underwear when they escaped in pick-up trucks to Tiji.
“We questioned them. Gaddafi is forcing them to fight. Their heart isn’t in this,” a rebel officer said.
Six months into the uprising the war remains essentially deadlocked. With the fasting month of Ramadan due to begin shortly, fighting may subside, so no major changes can be expected.
But rebel successes in the Western Mountain plains, where the rough desert terrain offers few hiding places from Gaddafi’s missiles, seem to have raised their spirits.
“We are not going to let up now even during Ramadan when we fast,” said rebel Youssef Ali, standing beside tin foil plates filled with couscous and potatoes, the standard meal that he and his comrades live on. (Editing by Mark Heinrich)