Libyan rebels have wrested two key villages in the western mountains from forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, the country's embattled leader, as they continued to push deeper into government-held territory south of the capital, Tripoli.
The two villages in the mountain area about 150km south-west of Tripoli had been used for months by pro-Gaddafi forces to shell rebel-held towns.
"The revolutionaries 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.
A rebel spokesman in Nalut, a town in the western mountains, said there were no casualties from the shelling on Wednesday.
"Gaddafi's forces bombarded Nalut ... Over 20 Grad rockets landed in the town. They bombarded from their positions ... around 20km east of Nalut," he said, adding that they had also shelled the Wazin-Dehiba Tunisia border crossing.
The rebels are still a considerable way from Gaddafi's main stronghold in Tripoli, while their fellow fighters on the other two fronts - in Misurata and in eastern Libya - have made only halting progress against better-armed government troops.
The rebels said NATO leaflets warning of helicopter strikes had prevented them from pushing towards Zlitan, and had prompted some rebels to retreat from their newly-captured positions about 10km outside the city, towards their base in Misurata.
A NATO official said the alliance dropped the leaflets west of Misurata, and closer to Zlitan. A Reuters news agency correspondent in Misurata said there were no further advances towards Zlitan on Wednesday.
NATO war planes bombed Tripoli on Tuesday night, causing loud explosions that filled the sky with plumes of smoke, but there were no further reports of bombing on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the rebels tried to advance in the east, setting their sights on the oil town of Brega to extend their control over the region, epicentre of the four-month rebellion against Gaddafi's four-decade rule.
In a sign that Gaddafi's forces may be getting stretched, the rebels seized the town of Kikla, 150km southwest of Tripoli.
'No ground forces needed'
The push by the rebels came as the NATO commander heading the Libya operations said that the alliance's mission "can be completed without the use of ground troops".
Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard also said that the military situation in western Libya 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, the flagship for NATO's maritime embargo on Libya.
"My view is that this operation has clear support from the North Atlantic council and we are receiving adequate assets to complete the mission and carry out our mandate," he said, adding: "We don't have a mandate for regime change."
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary-general, was set to meet with David Cameron, the British prime minister, and William Hague, the foreign secretary, later on Wednesday for talks on the three-month military operation.
Senior military officials from Britain and France, key players in the NATO campaign, had earlier expressed concerns about how to maintain the NATO operation, just extended for three months from June 27.
Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, last week issued a stinging rebuke to NATO allies, warning their reliance on US military might is putting the Libya mission and the alliance's very future at risk.