Reuters - Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi fired a Scud missile for the first time in the country's civil war, a US defence official said, after rebel advances left the Libyan leader isolated in his capital. Rebels fighting to end Gaddafi's 41-year rule seized two strategic towns near Tripoli over the past two days, cutting the city off from its supply lines and leaving the Libyan leader with a dwindling set of options if he is to stay in power.
However, pro-Gaddafi forces were encountering a fight-back in one of those towns, Zawiyah, west of Tripoli. A Reuters reporter nearby said he heard a salvo of four Russian-made Grad rockets landing in the town on Tuesday. The Scud missile was fired on Sunday morning from a location about 50 miles (80 km) east of Sirte, Gaddafi's home town, and landed east of the coastal oil town of Brega where rebels are fighting for control, the U.S. official said.
The missile came down in the desert, injuring no one, said the official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity. There was no immediate comment from the government in Tripoli. Firing the missile, which poses little military threat because it is so inaccurate, is evidence of the Gaddafi administration's desperation, said Shashank Joshi, Associate Fellow at Britain's Royal United Services Institute.
"It's an obvious sign that the regime's back is to the wall," he said. In the six months of fighting up to now, Gaddafi's forces have been using short-range Grad rockets but have not before deployed Scud missiles, which have an estimated range of about 185 miles (300 km). In the rebel headquarters in the eastern city of Benghazi, officials said the Scud firing was a sign Gaddafi would do anything to protect his power.
"Gaddafi troops are using his last gun. He's crazy," said Mohammad Zawawi, media director for rebel forces. "We're scared he'll use chemicals. That's why we're trying to end this war and we hope to end it with the least number of casualties."
"We can't prevent the scuds but we hope NATO can. NATO has the technology to detect them." Analysts say the rebels' strategy now is to isolate the capital and hope the government will collapse, but they say it is possible too that Gaddafi will opt to stage a last-ditch fight for the capital.
In a barely audible telephone call to state television in the early hours of Monday morning, Gaddafi called on his followers to liberate Libya from rebels and their NATO supporters. "Get ready for the fight ... The blood of martyrs is fuel for the battlefield," he said. Rebel forces in the Western Mountains south of Tripoli surged forward at the weekend to enter Zawiyah.