ZINTAN, Libya (Reuters) – Libyan rebels pushed deeper into government-held territory south of the capital on Wednesday, but their advance came as strains began to emerge in the Western alliance trying to topple Muammar Gaddafi.
Fighters in the Western Mountains, a rebel stronghold about 150 km (90 miles) south-west of Tripoli, built on gains made in the past few days by taking two villages from which pro-Gaddafi forces had for months been shelling rebel-held towns.
But the rebels are still a long way from Gaddafi's main stronghold in Tripoli, while their fellow fighters on the other two fronts -- in Misrata and in eastern Libya -- have made only halting progress against better-armed government troops.
"The revolutionaries (rebels) now control Zawiyat al-Babour and al-Awiniyah after pro-Gaddafi forces retreated this morning from the two villages," Abdulrahman, a rebel spokesman in the nearby town of Zintan, told Reuters.
The NATO military alliance, which has been pounding Gaddafi's military and command-and-control structures for nearly three months, has failed to dislodge him.
Libyan state TV said on Wednesday a NATO bombardment had killed 12 people in a convoy in the town of Kikla, 150 km (90 miles) southwest of Tripoli. A NATO official denied the report, saying: "There was no strike in Kikla by NATO today."
The rebels seized the town on Tuesday after government troops fell back.
In a theatrical show of defiance, Libyan state television showed Gaddafi at the weekend playing a game of chess with a visiting Russian official.
Ties are becoming strained in the alliance, with some NATO members complaining that others have been reluctant to commit additional resources needed to sustain the bombing mission in the coming months.
Adding to the pressure, Republicans in the U.S. Congress are pressing President Barack Obama to explain the legal grounds on which he was keeping U.S. forces involved in Libya without the authorization of Congress.
TIME ON OUR SIDE
Speaking in London after meeting NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, British Prime Minister David Cameron reiterated that time was running out for Gaddafi and that the alliance was as determined as ever.
"I think there is a very clear pattern emerging which is time is on our side, because we have the support of NATO, the United Nations, the Arab League, a huge number of countries in our coalition and in our contact group," he said.
Rasmussen echoed those comments despite senior NATO commander General Stephane Abrial on Tuesday raising questions about the alliance's ability to handle a long-term intervention.
"Allies and partners are committed to provide the necessary resources and assets to continue this operation and see it through to a successful conclusion," Rasmussen said.
Saad Djebbar, a former legal adviser to the Libyan government, told Reuters Gaddafi would continue to play for time and seek to demoralize and split the coalition.
"Gaddafi's mentality is that as long as my enemies haven't triumphed, I haven't lost," he said.
"The U.S. stance, that the major outside role should be played by the Europeans and Arabs, sends the wrong signal. Gaddafi will be very encouraged by it. His line is 'We are steadfast. We can wait it out.'"
"The concerns being raised in the British parliament and the U.S. Congress, including questions like 'why are we spending so much?', will be of comfort to him," said Djebbar.
Gaddafi has said he has no intention of leaving the country -- an outcome which, with the military intervention so far failing to produce results, many Western policymakers see as the most realistic way out of the conflict.
The Libyan leader has described the rebels as criminals and al Qaeda militants, and called the NATO intervention an act of colonial aggression aimed at grabbing Libya's oil.
Though under attack from NATO warplanes and rebel fighters, Gaddafi's troops have showed they are still a potent force.
A rebel spokesman in Nalut, at the other end of the Western Mountains range from Zintan, said Gaddafi's forces had been shelling Nalut and the nearby border crossing into Tunisia. The rebels depend on that crossing to bring in supplies.
On Tuesday, the rebels tried to advance in the east of Libya, setting their sights on the oil town of Brega, but they were unable to break through.
In Misrata, Libya's third-biggest city about 200 km (120 miles) east of Tripoli, rebels have been inching slowly west toward the neighboring town of Zlitan, but have frequently had to flee after coming under artillery fire.
The rebels there have expressed frustration that NATO is not more active at taking out Gaddafi's forces there, and is not doing more to coordinate with fighters on the ground.
On Tuesday, some rebels who had advanced toward Zlitan pulled back after NATO dropped leaflets warning of strikes by attack helicopters.
A Reuters correspondent in Misrata said there were no further advances toward Zlitan on Wednesday.
Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger will visit the rebels in Benghazi on Sunday to offer "concrete support," his office said, the latest in a series of such visitors. a
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