Libya Rebels Advance West, NATO Says No Need for Ground Troops

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Libyan rebels captured two western villages on the road to Tripoli on Wednesday, as NATO insisted it could complete its mission without putting soldiers on the ground against strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

The Western military alliance which has carried out 10 weeks of air strikes against Gadhafi's forces can see out its mission without ground troops, its operations commander said in a briefing on an Italian aircraft carrier.

Lieutenant General Charles Bouchard also said that the military situation in western Libya, where there has been an upsurge in fighting between regime loyalists and rebel forces, was developing "very positively."

"I do believe we can complete the mission without bringing in ground troops," the Canadian general told reporters off Libyan shores on the Garibaldi. "We are receiving adequate assets to complete the mission and carry out our mandate."

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was to meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague later on Wednesday for talks on the operation.

Senior military officials from Britain and France, key players in the NATO campaign, have expressed concerns about how to maintain the NATO operation, which has been extended for a second three-month period from June 27.

Anti-Gadhafi rebels, meanwhile, seized two villages as they sought control of a key junction connecting the towns of Yefren and Zintan, west of Tripoli, Agence France Presse reported.

Rebels were seen patrolling the streets of Zawit Bagoul, 20 kilometers from Zintan.

Pro-Gadhafi positions on the outskirts of Zawit Bagoul were deserted and loyalists left behind clothes, shoes and ammunition, AFP said. The rebels later also moved into Lawania, about seven kilometers away.

In its latest operational update, NATO said it struck several targets including a truck-mounted gun near Yefren on Tuesday.

Rasmussen's talks in London come after the rebels won more diplomatic recognition and seized al-Rayayna village, east of the heavily fought-over hill town of Zintan.

Cameron insisted ahead of the talks that Britain could sustain its Libya operation long-term, after Britain's navy chief warned of tough choices if the campaign lasts more than six months.

The premier said he had met First Sea Lord Admiral Mark Stanhope, the head of the Royal Navy, following his comments.

"I had a meeting with the first sea lord yesterday and he agreed that we can sustain this mission for as long as we need to," he said. "Time is on our side. We have got NATO, the United Nations, the Arab League. We have right on our side."

And following a three-day pause in NATO strikes on Tripoli, powerful explosions rocked the Libyan capital late on Tuesday, with black smoke rising from a site close to downtown.

Tripoli and its suburbs have been the target of almost daily NATO air raids since it started its military operation on March 31, a month after Gadhafi's forces began a bloody crackdown on pro-reform protests.

In its operational update, NATO said Wednesday it had also struck an air defense support facility in Tripoli and two surface-to-air missile launchers in the vicinity of the city.

But U.S. politicians have been growing impatient with the pace of operations.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner gave President Barack Obama until Friday to ask Congress to authorize military action "or withdraws all U.S. troops and resources from the mission."

The White House vowed later to answer critics of the conflict.

"We are in the final stages of preparing extensive information for the House and Senate that will address a whole host of issues about our ongoing efforts in Libya," national security spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.

The rebels gained diplomatically on Tuesday when Canada and Panama recognized them as the legitimate representative of Libya's people, while Tunisia declared itself ready to follow suit.

Liberia broke diplomatic ties with Libya one day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed African states to demand Gadhafi step down and take tougher action against his regime.

But South African President Jacob Zuma said NATO's air campaign abused a U.N. resolution to protect Libyan civilians for regime change and "political assassinations".

"We strongly believe that the resolution is being abused for regime change, political assassinations and foreign military occupation," Zuma said in a speech to parliament.

He added NATO's actions undermined African Union efforts to find a solution.