Explosions and gunfire rocked Tripoli on Sunday as a months-long uprising pushed through the gates of the Libyan capital, with rebels insisting they are close to toppling Moamer Kadhafi.
A spokesman for Kadhafi's regime said Tripoli is well-defended by "thousands" of troops, as rebels announced the launch of "Operation Mermaid" they said would end only once the veteran strongman surrendered or departed.
Poland's foreign ministry meanwhile said a Maltese ship which was due to evacuate foreign nationals from Tripoli on Sunday came under fire and was forced to retreat to sea.
With rebels claiming to have seized three key towns and saying they are advancing on Tripoli from the west, government spokesman Mussa Ibrahim admitted a small band of insurgents had penetrated the capital. Related article: Gunfire 'forces ship to abort Tripoli evacuation'
There had been "small clashes" that lasted 30 minutes and the "situation is under control," Ibrahim said on state television.
Intermittent gunfire crackled in Tripoli shortly after four strong blasts were heard around 4:00 am (0200 GMT) as NATO warplanes flew overhead, an AFP journalist said. This was followed by more gunfire and further blasts.
The targets were not immediately identifiable but witnesses reported clashes in several districts between insurgents and Kadhafi supporters, namely in the eastern neighbourhoods of Soug Jomaa, Arada and Tajura.
Witnesses also said residents of Tajura, Soug Jomaa and Fashlum east of Tripoli took to the streets late Saturday, setting tyres ablaze while calls urging the population to rise were made from the loudspeakers of mosques.
Ibrahim later told reporters "thousands" of professional and volunteer soldiers were defending the capital against rebels, whom he accused of carrying out "34 executions" and raping women in the western coastal town of Sorman.
Kadhafi himself earlier Sunday pushed out a message urging supporters to "march by the millions" to liberate cities held by "traitors and rats."
"These scum enter mosques to cry 'God is great.' They are dirty. They are defiling the mosques," the embattled Kadhafi said in an audio message carried on state television.
"We have to put an end to this masquerade. You must march by the millions to free the destroyed towns" controlled by rebels "traitors" and "rats," he said.
Rebel spokesman Ahmed Jibril said "Operation Mermaid" is a joint effort between the Benghazi-based rebel National Transitional Council, insurgents fighting in and around Tripoli and NATO forces.
"The operation is also in coordination with NATO," Jibril said.
Rebel fighters told an AFP correspondent that they were battling Kadhafi loyalists in the Gadayem forest some 24 kilometres (about 15 miles) west of Tripoli which they hoped to reach later Sunday.
"We want to go to Tripoli today," one of the fighters, Bassam, said, adding that NATO forces had been attacking the forest all night.
Another rebel, Mohammed, later said: "We have taken the forest."
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Fighting was later centred on a strategic bridge, a rebel fighter, Tareq Gazel, told AFP.
"We are fighting the Khamis brigade (named after and headed by Kadhafi's son Khamis) on the bridge 27," he said.
"We are fighting for control of the bridge. We have had some injuries but no deaths."
The claims could not be independently verified.
The rebels have been moving from the centre of Zawiyah, one of three strategic towns on the road to Tripoli which insurgents claim to have captured over the past two days. The other two are Brega and Zliten.
In his eastern stronghold of Benghazi, rebel chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil claimed that victory was within reach, six months after the insurgency was launched.
"We have contacts with people from the inner circle of Kadhafi," the chairman of the NTC said. "All evidence (shows) that the end is very near, with God's grace."
His words prompted celebrations in rebel-held towns, including Sabratha, 50 kilometres west of Tripoli, and in Benghazi, where people crowded in front of television sets to follow the news, AFP correspondents said.
"Goodbye Kadhafi," they chanted in the rebel-capital, Benghazi.
There has been a flurry of rumours that Kadhafi was prepared to flee Libya and Abdel Jalil predicted a "catastrophic" end for the veteran leader and his inner circle, along with turmoil in Tripoli.
Kadhafi's son Seif al-Islam however was as defiant as his father.
"We have a long breath. We are in our land and in our country. We will resist for six months, one year, two years... and we will win," he said in remarks broadcast on state television, which said they were made a day earlier.
Another sign of the regime's frailty came as fighters said former premier Abdessalam Jalloud, a popular figure who fell out of favour with the Libyan strongman in the mid-1990s, had defected and joined their ranks.
Italian Defence Minister Ignazio La Russa confirmed the reports.
Jalloud piled the pressure on Kadhafi in statements broadcast Sunday on Al-Jazeera news, calling on his tribe to disown him, saying the "tyrant" Kadhafi will go. "The noose has tightened around him."
Striking another blow to Kadhafi's regime, Tunisia, Libya's neighbour to the west, has decided to recognise the NTC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, the news agency TAP reported.
"The political decision has been taken," a government source confirmed to AFP.
In Warsaw, Polish ministry spokeswoman Paulina Kapuscinska told AFP that the Maltese boat MV Triva 1 which was due to evacuate foreign nationals from Libya was unable to enter the port of Tripoli Sunday morning.
"It was swept by gunfire and it returned to its anchorage," she said.