Libya rebels - AFP - 31.7.11
Rebel fighters gathering close to their jeep in the village of Josh, at the foot of the Nafusa mountain range, in western Libya on July 31, 2011. Photo by AFP
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Heavy gunfire rang out near the Tripoli hotel where members of the foreign media are staying, a Reuters correspondent at the hotel said on Sunday, as close to 200 Libyan rebel fighters reached the capital in boats to assist in push to take over the city.

The fighters, arriving from the rebel-stronghold of Misrata, joined opposition forces engaged in a fierce gun battle with forces loyal to Muammar Gadhafi inside the Mitiga airbase in Tripoli's Tajoura district, a pro-rebel activist told Reuters.

A Libyan government official said on Sunday that a total of 376 Libyans were killed on both sides in fighting Saturday night, and over 1,000 were injured.

Gadhafi dismissed the rebels as "rats", saying he would not yield. But his grip on power looked more fragile than ever after rebels, fighting for the past six months to end his rule, advanced to within about 25 km (16 miles) of Tripoli's western edge.

However, Muammar Gadhafi's former right-hand man, Abdel Salam Jalloud, who has defected to the Libyan rebels' side, said on Sunday that Gadhafi would be toppled within ten days at most.

Speaking on Italy's Rai News, Jalloud said the regime would be finished "within a week, at the latest 10 days, maybe even less."

The rebels are also hopeful that their heightened efforts will bear fruit. "We're going to Tripoli now," said Moussa, a rebel fighter raised in the United States, near the front line in the village of Al-Maya.

As he spoke, rebel pick-up trucks and a tank trundled down the highway which traces the Mediterranean coast towards Tripoli. Anti-aircraft guns, adapted by the rebels to shoot targets on the ground, pounded away nearby.

In a coordinated revolt that rebel cells had been secretly preparing for months, shooting started on Saturday night across Tripoli, moments after Muslim clerics, using the loudspeakers on mosque minarets, called people on to the streets.

The fighting inside Tripoli, combined with rebel advances to the outskirts of the city, appeared to signal the decisive phase in a six month conflict that has become the bloodiest of the "Arab Spring" uprisings and embroiled NATO powers.

"Gadhafi's chances for a safe exit are diminishing by the hour," said Ashour Shamis, a Libyan opposition activist and editor based in Britain.

But Gadhafi's fall is far from certain. His security forces did not buckle, and the city is much bigger than anything the mostly amateur anti-Gaddafi fighters, with their scavenged weapons and mismatched uniforms, have ever tackled.

If the Libyan leader is forced from power, there are question marks over whether the opposition can restore stability in this oil exporting country, with the rebels' own ranks wracked by disputes and rivalry.

Rebels said after a night of heavy fighting, they controlled a handful of city neighborhoods. However, whether they can expand this hold dependws on the speed with which the other rebels reach Tripoli.

"The rebels may have risen too early in Tripoli and the result could be a lot of messy fighting," said Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya. "The regime may not have collapsed in the city to quite the extent they think it has."

But the rebel advance towards the city was rapid, and there was no sign of fierce resistance from Gadhafi's security forces.

In the past 48 hours, the rebels west of Tripoli have advanced about 25 km, halving the distance between them and the capital.

Government forces put up a brief fight at the village of Al-Maya, leaving behind a burned-out tank, and some cars that had been torched. "I am very happy," said one resident.

The anti-Gadhafi fighters paused long enough to daub some graffiti on walls in the village. One read "We are here and we are fighting Gadhafi," with another proclaiming, "God is great." They then moved on toward Tripoli.

In Benghazi, the eastern Libyan city where the anti-Gadhafi revolt started and where the rebels have their main stronghold, a senior official said everything was going according to plan.

"Our revolutionaries are controlling several neighborhoods and others are coming in from outside the city to join their brothers at this time," Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, vice-chairman of the rebel National Transition Council, told Reuters.