NATO has called the use of a Scud missile by Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi's forces in Libya as the equivalent of "throwing dishes against a wall", as rebel leaders, now holding the upper hand as their forces encircle Tripoli, reiterated that they had no intention of reaching a deal with the dictator.
After 41 years of supreme power in his oil-rich desert state Col Gaddafi is now isolated in the capital Tripoli, with reinvigorated rebel forces closing in from the west and south.
Libya's rebel National Transitional Council (NTC), recognised by many of the Nato nations whose air power is supporting their assault, yesterday denied any kind of negotiation with Col Gaddafi to resolve the six-month-old conflict.
"The NTC would like to affirm that there are no negotiations either direct or indirect with the Gaddafi regime or with the special envoy of the United Nations," said NTC leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil. Col Gaddafi must step down and leave Libya, he said. "It is unthinkable to hold any negotiations or talks that disregard this basic principle."
Rebels fighting to topple Col Gaddafi seized two strategic towns near Tripoli over the past two days, cutting the city off from its supply lines and leaving the 69-year-old Libyan leader with a dwindling set of options.
However, pro-Gaddafi forces were mounting a fight-back in one of those towns, Zawiyah, west of Tripoli. Snipers concealed in tall buildings were picking off rebel fighters, and salvos of Russian-made Grad rockets landed in the town.
The Scud missile, an obsolete Soviet-era weapon, was fired on Sunday morning from near Sirte, Col Gaddafi's now isolated home town 300 miles east of Tripoli.
It exploded to the east between the rebel-held towns of Brega and Ajdabiyah, said a US official. The missile, tracked by a US destroyer, came down in the desert, injuring no one.
"The Scud-type missile is a type of armament that does not represent a new threat," Colonel Roland Lavoie, a Nato military spokesman, said in Brussels.
"Our assessment is that the Gaddafi regime does not have any more an effective operational capability. It could certainly throw dishes against the wall to make a bit of noise, but we do not believe it could generate a significant operational effect with that type of weaponry."
Scuds have a range of about 185 miles. At rebel headquarters in Benghazi, officials said it was probably aimed at rebel forces near Ajdabiyah.
"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 rebel strategy is to isolate Tripoli and hope the government collapses, but they say it is also possible Gaddafi will opt to stage a last-ditch fight for the capital.
In Zawiyah yesterday, a reporter watched as a rebel pick-up truck delivered six
government soldiers to a makeshift prison. Each was blindfolded and made to kneel facing a wall and several rebels walked by, shouting at them and slapping them on the head.
"They were firing at us," said Abdel-Muiz Ramadan, 20, a rebel fighter. "We captured one of them and he gave us the location of the others."