BENGHAZI, Libya - Moammar Gadhafi's forces rocketed rebel fighters Thursday in the formidable strongholds and training camps they have built up in the strategic mountain heights southwest of the Libyan capital, rebels said.
The two sides appeared to be fighting for control of the two highways to the north and south of the Nafusa mountain range, which slices across the desert south of Tripoli to the western border with Tunisia. Rebels, in particular, have used the road, bringing in supplies for camps to train fighters for what they hope will be a future push on the capital.
In Tripoli late Thursday, Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said that in a meeting Tuesday with Russian leaders, an envoy offered to withdraw Libyan fighters from cities if rebels did the same, as part of a peace deal.
"We are even prepared to go as far as withdrawing our army from all Libyan cities and population centers," he said. "This is a new offer."
Ibrahim said the offer was the furthest the government had gone since fighting broke out against rebels. He said as part of the deal, NATO would also have to halt its strikes of Libyan targets.
There was no immediate comment by rebel leaders based in the eastern city of Benghazi.
Gadhafi appeared briefly on Libyan state TV late Thursday, his first appearance in several days, as NATO air strikes resumed in Tripoli. One target was the seaport, where flames and smoke could be seen rising.
As fighting intensified this week, the rebel leadership in eastern Libya said Thursday that it was getting graphic reports of hospitals overwhelmed with casualties and of wounded having to be loaded onto donkeys and smuggled past government blockades to get treatment elsewhere.
The situation in the Nafusa mountains "remains dire, really dire," said Jalal al-Gallal, a spokesman for the rebel governing council, based in the eastern city of Benghazi.
The mountain range has been one of the few zones of opposition in western Libya since the early days of the uprising against Gadhafi's four-decade rule in mid-February. Most of the rebel forces are concentrated in the east.
The long highways on either side of the mountain range are key to both sides. The government needs easy passage without harassment from the ridgeline above if it wants to keep control of a huge swath of the west.
The rebels run supplies from the border. Also, they have used the passageway to smuggle back fighters who had fled battles in other parts of the country and ended up in Tunisia, said Omar Hussein, a spokesman for the Nafusa mountain rebels.
Syria: Authorities kept up a relentless campaign against the country's two-month uprising Thursday, using tanks to shell a besieged border town as President Obama called on Syria's president to lead his country to democracy or "get out of the way." President Bashar al-Assad has taken pains to portray confidence and a steely determination in recent days amid signs that his brutal crackdown is terrifying the population into submission. Syria's state-run news agency also condemned new U.S. sanctions, saying they "did not and will not affect Syria's independent choices and steadfastness." The Syrian army shelled the town of Talkalakh overnight and early Thursday, sparking gun battles that killed at least eight people.
Yemen: A spokesman for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said the embattled ruler now planned to sign an agreement to leave power, though he rejected it 24 hours earlier. Yemen's opposition met the promise with deep skepticism, accusing Saleh of stalling. On Thursday, Saleh spokesman Ahmed al-Sufi said Saleh would sign the deal during a celebration Sunday.
Egypt: Authorities continue to restrict freedom of assembly, torture detainees, and try civilians in military courts, highlighting the urgent need for reform, Amnesty International said. Egypt's military rulers announced that they were suspending prison sentences for 120 people who participated in protests after the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
Bahrain: A security court sentenced a prominent Shiite cleric and eight others to 20 years in prison for the kidnapping of a police officer. The sentences come during a crackdown by the ruling Sunni dynasty against Shiite-led protesters.
Tunisia: Western security officials worry that crucial intelligence on terror groups in North Africa will dry up as repressive - but effective - security services are dismantled or reorganized after the Arab revolts. Those concerns add urgency to reports of foreign fighters with suspected al-Qaeda ties crossing into Tunisia.