Libyans entered the Muslim holy month of Ramadan Monday with no let-up in the five-month conflict as Moammar Gadhafi sought to foment divisions within a rebellion threatening him on several fronts.
Several explosions rocked the capital Tripoli overnight and again Monday as the NATO coalition vowed to press on with a U.N.-backed bombing campaign which is meant to protect civilians but is also supporting rebels trying to oust Gadhafi.
Holding firm despite growing international isolation and crippling financial sanctions, Gadhafi sought to play on potential divisions by calling on tribes and soldiers in rebel-controlled areas to rise up and free their cities.
But in the eastern stronghold of Benghazi, businesses have pledged to keep sending food and supplies to the front line to sustain a rebellion that now controls about half the country but has struggled to make a significant breakthrough in weeks.
After a torrid week in their eastern bastion, where they had to fight off a pocket of Gadhafi loyalists and saw their military commander assassinated, apparently by allied gunmen, the Western-backed rebels have sought to put divisions behind them and retake the initiative.
The insurgents advanced on Tiji, the last government stronghold in the Western Mountains, Zlitan, 160 kilometers east of Tripoli, and Brega, a key oil town protected by some 3,000 heavily armed Gadhafi forces.
Despite controlling vast swathes of territory and winning broadening international recognition, potentially freeing up billions of dollars in frozen funds, splits within the anti-Gadhafi camp are raising concerns over instability and sustained trouble even if the rebels end his 41-year rule.
Talks to end the conflict have slipped into the background after a United Nations envoy came and went last week without having made any visible progress with either side.
However, Venezuela’s foreign minister is due to receive a Gadhafi envoy later Monday. Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez has been a vocal critic of the NATO bombing campaign and previously proposed talks between the warring sides.
The high cost and lack of food, coupled with soaring temperatures and fears over loved ones on the front line will hang over this year’s Ramadan, when families and friends typically gather to break their fast.
Amid religious music marking the start of Ramadan, Libyan state television broadcast a statement by Defense Minister Abubakr Yunus Jaber urging members of the army who joined rebels in the east to rejoin the fold and “liberate Benghazi.”
Benghazi has been awash with speculation over the killing last week of General Abdel Fattah Younes, a former Gadhafi security minister who defected to the rebels early in the war.
Some suspect his execution was ordered by rebel leaders for treason, many say he was killed by Gadhafi spies, and others suggest a rebel splinter group had acted alone.
In an apparent effort to avert a feud, rebels named Suleiman al-Obeidi, a member of Younes’ tribe, as acting military chief.
Libya’s conflict, which some had hoped might be over in weeks once NATO started bombing Gadhafi targets in March, has dragged on into Ramadan, sapping the energy of fighters on the ground and potentially the enthusiasm of their foreign backers.
Aside from sporadic gunfire, there was little action on the battlefield in the west Monday. Rebel fighters had pulled about 8 km back from Tiji due to a sandstorm, and were cleaning their guns as they sought shelter from the baking sun.
Despite fighting and fasting in the heat, a 33-year-old fighter called Sagher said he relished the challenge.
“If I die fighting Gadhafi I would rather be a martyr who is fasting,” he said, the remains of a camel eaten the night before lying nearby.