ZINTAN, Libya (Reuters) - Rebel fighters said on Wednesday they had retaken a village south of the capital they lost to forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi earlier in the day, boosting rebel plans for a march on Tripoli.
The retaking of Al-Qawalish, about 100 km (60 miles) from Tripoli, came at the end of a day of bitter fighting that killed five rebels and wounded 15, according to rebel sources and hospital officials.
The back-and-forth fighting underlined the fragile nature of the rebels’ advances in the west that has led some of their Western backers to push for a political solution to the conflict.
Rebel spokesman Abdurahman Alzintani said pro-Gaddafi forces had been pushed back to where they were before they took the village earlier on Wednesday, or perhaps even further.
“It is the same, maybe one or two hills further,” he told Reuters.
A Libyan government soldier taken prisoner by the rebels said that pro-Gaddafi forces were massing nearby, potentially setting the stage for renewed fighting soon, according to a Reuters team in the western town of Zintan.
The counter-attack to retake Al-Qawalish was carried out by hundreds of rebels in pick-up trucks, who fanned out into the hills about 10 km (6 miles) north of the village, under fire from mortars launched by government troops.
Rebel forces want to use Al-Qawalish as a staging post to take the nearby town of Garyan, which controls access to the main highway heading north to Tripoli.
On the other main battle front, near the western city of Misrata, a burst of missile and mortar fire killed five rebels and wounded 17, hospital spokesman Khaled Abu Talghah said.
“This is just a normal day’s work for Gaddafi,” he said.
The conflict in Libya started out as a rebellion against Gaddafi’s 41-year-rule. It has now turned into the bloodiest of the “Arab Spring” uprisings convulsing the region and has embroiled Western powers in a prolonged conflict they had hoped would swiftly force Gaddafi out of power.
The Libyan leader is refusing to quit and the rebels have been unable to make a decisive breakthrough toward the capital despite support from Western warplanes.
Libya charged the head of NATO with war crimes for killing innocent civilians and bombarding civilian targets in Libya.
Libyan General Prosecutor Mohammed Zekri al Mahjoubi described NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen as a war criminal during a news conference in Tripoli on Wednesday.
France said on Tuesday a political way out of the conflict was being looked at and that Gaddafi’s emissaries had been in contact with NATO members to say he was ready to leave power.
“A political solution is more than ever indispensable and is beginning to take shape,” French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said in Paris.
But it was not obvious how negotiations could persuade Gaddafi to quit, especially at a time when the Western alliance ranged against him is showing signs of wavering.
A report on Libya’s official JANA news agency described statements by Western officials about Gaddafi potentially stepping down or leaving the country as “elusive dreams.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is under pressure to find a quick solution. He gambled by taking a personal role in supporting the rebels, but is now anxious to avoid costly military operations running into the start of campaigning for the April 2012 presidential election.
Washington expressed doubts about peace overtures from Gaddafi emissaries. A State Department spokeswoman said the “messages are contradictory” and there is no clear evidence “Gaddafi is prepared to understand that its time for him to go.”
Revealing fresh strains inside NATO about the cost and duration of the Libyan operation, British Defense Minister Liam Fox said other alliance members were not pulling their weight and described some states’ contributions as “pathetic.”
“The United States is willing to spend on defense, Britain is willing to spend on defense and deploy. Far too (many) of our European partners inside NATO are still trying to get a free ride, and they should regard Libya as a wake-up call,” Fox said in London.
The rebel National Transitional Council, based in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, received a diplomatic boost on Wednesday when Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands recognized the council as Libyans’ legitimate representative.
The Benelux countries joined more than 20 nations that have already granted the council recognition.
At a meeting in Brussels, the European Union executive offered Libyan rebels help with democratic reforms once the war was over and said their Benghazi-based council was gaining credibility.
Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Nick Carey in Misrata, Justyna Pawlak and Christopher Le Coq in Brussels, John Irish in Paris, Souhail Karam in Rabat, Mohammed Abbas in London; Writing by Christian Lowe and Giles Elgood; Editing by Robert Woodward