ZINTAN, Libya (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi retook on Wednesday a village south of the capital seized by rebels a week ago, delivering a setback to rebel plans for a march on Tripoli.
The loss of the village of Al-Qawalish, about 100 km (60 miles) from Tripoli, underlined the faltering pattern of the rebels’ advances that has led some of their Western backers to push for a political solution to the conflict.
Gaddafi’s forces then pushed beyond Al-Qawalish to the outskirts of Al Qalaa and Kikla, two nearby villages to the north.
A Reuters reporter said he saw four or five ambulances speeding away from the front line in the direction of Zintan, where the rebels have a hospital.
Doctors at Zintan hospital said two rebels had died and 12 were wounded in the fighting.
Hundreds of rebels fanned out into the hills about 10 km (6 miles) north of Al-Qawalish as they began a counterattack. Puffs of black smoke rose from the hillside where mortars fired by government troops were landing.
A fighter for the rebels said they would use the same tactics to retake Al-Qawalish as they did a week ago when they seized control of the town. “It’s the same battle,” he said.
Scores of rebels in about a dozen pickup trucks with heavy weapons mounted on the back shouted, “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is Greatest” as they drove in a convoy back towards Al-Qawalish.
“The rebels intend to reach the village by nightfall,” said Moktar Lakdar, a rebel commander.
A Reuters team had been in Al-Qawalish on Wednesday morning when pro-Gaddafi forces began their assault on the village.
Small arms fire broke out in the east of the village and shells landed nearby. Soon after, several truckloads of rebel fighters sped away from the attacking government forces, with one shouting, “Go, go, it is not safe here!”
Rebel forces had been planning to use Al-Qawalish as a staging post to take the nearby town of Garyan, which controls access to the main highway heading north to Tripoli.
The conflict in Libya started out as a rebellion against Gaddafi’s 41-year-rule. It has now turned into the bloodiest of the “Arab Spring” uprisings convulsing the region and has embroiled Western powers in a prolonged conflict they had hoped would swiftly force Gaddafi out of power.
The Libyan leader is refusing to quit and the rebels have been unable to make a decisive breakthrough towards the capital despite support from Western warplanes.
France said on Tuesday a political way out of the conflict was being looked at and that Gaddafi’s emissaries had been in contact with NATO members to say he was ready to leave power.
“A political solution is more than ever indispensable and is beginning to take shape,” French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said in Paris.
But it was not obvious how negotiations could persuade Gaddafi to quit, especially at a time when the Western alliance ranged against him is showing signs of wavering.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is under pressure to find a quick solution. He gambled by taking a personal role in supporting the rebels, but is now anxious to avoid costly military operations running into the start of campaigning for the April 2012 presidential election.
Washington expressed doubts about peace overtures from Gaddafi emissaries. A State Department spokeswoman said the “messages are contradictory” and there is no clear evidence “Gaddafi is prepared to understand that its time for him to go.”
Revealing fresh strains inside NATO about the cost and duration of the Libyan operation, British Defence Minister Liam Fox said other alliance members were not pulling their weight and described some states’ contributions as “pathetic.”
“The United States is willing to spend on defence, Britain is willing to spend on defence and deploy. Far too (many) of our European partners inside NATO are still trying to get a free ride, and they should regard Libya as a wake-up call,” Fox said in London.
The rebel National Transitional Council, based in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, received a diplomatic boost on Wednesday when Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands recognised the council as Libyans’ legitimate representative.
The Benelux countries joined more than 20 nations that have already granted the council recognition.