Libya's rebels were bolstered by fresh battlefield advances on Wednesday, as leaders claimed the six-month-old civil war had entered a decisive phase and could end within weeks.
Revitalized rebel forces pushed further to isolate Tripoli and turn the screws on Muammar Gaddafi's regime, moving toward a western town that links the capital and Sirte -- Gaddafi's hometown and a stronghold for his military.
"The scouting teams of the revolutionaries reached the outskirts of Al-Heisha after expelling Gaddafi forces," the rebel military command said in a statement early Wednesday.
Al-Heisha lies roughly 70 kilometres (45 miles) south of Misrata and 250 kilometres (150 miles) from Tripoli, near two key crossroads that link loyalist-held territory in the west with that in the oil-rich Sirte basin.
It was just the latest in a series of battlefield operations to isolate the capital, which the rebels hope will force defections from the regime and spark a Tripoli uprising against the near 42-year-old regime.
Mansur Saif al-Nasr, the National Transitional Council's envoy to Paris, said Tuesday that the rebels also had full control of Zawiyah, a vital oil port just west of Tripoli that links the capital with Tunisia.
"We are entering a decisive phase. We hope to celebrate the final victory at the same time as the end of (Muslim holy month of) Ramadan" at the end of August, he said.
But while rebels claimed to control of "most" of Zawiyah, Gaddafi forces on Tuesday shelled the city, wounding several civilians, an AFP reporter witnessed.
Funerals were held for 23 others who rebels said were killed the previous day.
Earlier a defiant Gaddafi predicted victory: "The end of the coloniser (NATO) is close and the end of the rats is close," he said in an audio message on Libyan television.
The regime has denied it is in danger, insisting that its forces can retake towns and districts captured by the rebels in past days.
In some parts of the country Gaddafi's fighters showed little sign of acquiescing.
On Libya's eastern front, rebels admitted they had suffered relatively heavy losses battling loyalist forces around oil installations in the town of Brega.
"Since yesterday (Monday), we have had 15 victims on the Brega front," said spokesman Mohammed Zawiwa, adding the fighting was continuing in one of the town's residential areas.
Meanwhile the political war of words continued.
Gaddafi received backing from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
During a telephone call late Monday, Chavez and Ahmadinejad "discussed the situation created by the imperialist aggression against Libya and Syria, and agreed to... increase their efforts to achieve peace," the Venezuelan foreign ministry said in a statement.
But in Benghazi the head of Libya's National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, sought to encourage regime defections, promising a fair trial for some and amnesty for others.
But the invitation did not extend to Gaddafi and his closest allies, naming Gaddafi's son Seif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi.
"Anyone who is accused, or has an (International Criminal Court) arrest warrant in his name will fall under international jurisdiction and we will not be able to accept immunity or amnesty for them."
He also ruled out negotiations with the regime and vowed a swift transfer of power once the veteran strongman is ousted.
Abdel Jalil denied suggestions members of his NTC had held talks in Tunisia with representatives of the Gaddafi regime.
"There are no negotiations, either direct or indirect, with the Gaddafi regime," said NTC chief Abdel Jalil.
Rebel officials acknowledged there were some Libyan figures taking part in the talks, but insisted that they did not represent Benghazi.