But the rebels are still a considerable way from Gaddafi’s main stronghold in Tripoli, while their fellow fighters on the other two fronts — in Misrata and in eastern Libya — have made only halting progress against better-armed government troops.
The rebel advance some 150 km (90 miles) southwest of Tripoli on Wednesday, came as the White House insisted that President Barack Obama had the legal authority to press on with U.S. military involvement in Libya.
Strains have begun to show in the Western alliance trying to topple Gaddafi. The U.S. defence secretary rounded on European allies last week for failing to back the mission the alliance took over in late March.
The White House urged sceptical lawmakers not to send “mixed messages” about their commitment to the NATO-led air war that has helped the rebels push on from their bastion in the east.
“The revolutionaries (rebels) now control Zawiyat al-Babour and al-Awiniyah after pro-Gaddafi forces retreated this morning from the two villages,” Abdulrahman, a rebel spokesman in the nearby town of Zintan, told Reuters.
In Gharyan, a Gaddafi-held town that forms the gateway from Tripoli to the mountains, there was an undercurrent of tension as the frontline moves closer to the capital.
Libyan government minders took a group of reporters to the town, which lies about 120 km southwest of Tripoli and about 20 km east of Kikla, which rebels seized from loyalists on Tuesday.
The Kremlin, which says Gaddafi should quit but opposes NATO’s action in Libya, has said it is ready to help negotiate the Libyan leader’s departure.
“Clearly the talks in Tripoli will not be easy,” Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Margelov as saying before he left for Tripoli.
“In the Arab world there is a tradition of forgiveness and conciliation, and many formerly odious leaders of regimes in the region continue to live in their countries … despite having been overthrown,” he was quoted as saying.
It was not clear what form the vote proposed by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi would take. Libya has never held elections under Gaddafi and has no elected institutions.
There was no immediate reaction to the offer from the NATO military alliance or the rebels.
Saif al-Islam is one of three Libyan leaders wanted by an international war crimes prosecutor, but before the conflict he had frequent contacts with Western governments and helped negotiate the end of international sanctions seven years ago.
Libya-watchers say Gaddafi is using his political skills, honed during decades when he was able to survive despite being an international pariah, to try to exploit divisions within the fragile Western alliance ranged against him.
NATO began air strikes on Tripoli after Gaddafi’s troops used force to put down a rebellion against his rule in February. The Libyan leader has described the rebels as “rats” and says NATO’s campaign is an act of colonial aggression aimed at stealing Libya’s oil. Reuters