TRIPOLI, Libya — Rebels in Libya's western mountains said they have advanced and are battling Moammar Gadhafi's forces in a strategic town southwest of the capital, ramping up pressure against government troops on a second front.
The rebels' claim of an advance into the outskirts of the town of Bair al-Ghanam, some 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Tripoli, follows weeks of intense fighting in the Nafusa mountains in which opposition forces have slowly pushed Gadhafi troops back toward Tripoli.
Libya's rebels control the eastern third of the country and pockets, including a number of Nafusa mountain towns, in the west.
The bulk of the fighting in recent months has been focused on front lines to the east of Tripoli. But a push by rebels from the Nafusa mountains could force Gadhafi to commit more troops to the southern and eastern approaches to the capital.
A rebel military spokesman in the Nafusa mountains, Gomaa Ibrahim, said opposition fighters and government troops have been fighting since early Sunday on the perifery of Bair al-Ghanam.
Guma el-Gamaty, a spokesman for the rebels' National Transitional council, said the town is significant because it is only 19 miles (30 kilometers) south of the city of Zawiya, a key western gateway to the capital and home to a crucial oil refinery.
Opposition fighters seized control of Zawiya in March before government troops crushed rebel forces there to retake the city. Fighting broke out in the city again earlier this month, briefly cutting access to the vital coastal highway that passes through Zawiya. The route links Tripoli with the Tunisian border and is one of Gadhafi's last main supply lines.
In Tripoli, Gadhafi's government remained defiant. Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said Gadhafi is in "high spirits" and remains in day-to-day control of the country. He insisted Gadhafi will remain in Libya, but wouldn't confirm that the leader is still in the capital.
"Gadhafi is here, he is staying. He is leading the country. He will not leave. He will not step down," Ibrahim told reporters in Tripoli, challenging the rebels and the NATO-led coalition giving them air support. "If they want to continue the fight, we are ready. We will fight street to street, house to house."
As he spoke, deafening bursts of automatic rifle fire shot into the air by female soldiers and fresh civilian trainees rang out at a pro-government event in central Tripoli. Moussa told reporters that the government so far has distributed 1.2 million weapons to supporters in the west of the country to defend themselves.
Just over 100 Libyans arrived in Tripoli by ship from the eastern rebel stronghold of Benghazi early Sunday. The ferry was operated by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which transported about 300 people in the opposite direction, to Benghazi from Tripoli, on Friday.
Many of those arriving aboard the blue-and-white "Ionis" ferry on Sunday appeared to be families with small children and elderly people. While a small number of passengers waved green Libyan flags and chanted pro-Gadhafi slogans, others said they were returning simply to be reunited with loved ones in the west.
Mohammed Saad Aziz said he was returning to Tripoli to be with family following the recent death of his mother. He called on NATO to stop its daily bombing runs to give Libyans a chance to resolve the conflict on their own.
"We need to solve our problems ourselves and we do not want anyone to interfere. They (NATO) have to step aside and let us work out our problems. We will solve our own problems through dialogue," he said.
Red Cross spokesman Robin Waudo said many more people displaced by the conflict would like to make the sea journey across the front lines, but have so far been prevented from doing so because officials on both sides must approve who makes the crossing.Comment on this story
Meanwhile, African leaders meeting in Pretoria, South Africa said Gadhafi has agreed not to take part in negotiations to end the more than four months of turmoil in Libya. There was no immediate confirmation from the Libya regime of what could be a significant concession.
In a communique issued after a daylong meeting in South Africa's capital, the African Union's committee on Libya said it "welcomes Col. Gadhafi's acceptance of not being part of the negotiation process."
The communique did not elaborate, and committee members did not take questions.
Associated Press writers Maggie Michael in Cairo and Donna Bryson in Pretoria, South Africa, contributed to this report.