|Rebel fighters in the Nafusa Mountains, most untrained in warfare, may number at most a few thousand [Al Jazeera]
Rebels in Libya's western mountains have advanced a dozen kilometres, seizing a town in another step towards securing a key north-south road that would open the way to the capital, Tripoli.
The rebels wrested the town of al-Qawalish from forces loyal to leader Muammar Gaddafi after a a roughly six-hour battle on Wednesday.
The two sides fought mostly at a distance, using heavy artillery, and black plumes of smoke could be seen rising from al-Qawalish in the afternoon, Al Jazeera's Jonah Hull reported.
|Al Jazeera's Jonah Hull reports on the capture of al-Qawalish by rebel forces
"Gaddafi forces have fled the town and [the rebels] have now gone in on foot to try and make sure that is the case, to try to clear it, to move house by house and see that in fact the area is clear of Gaddafi forces," he said.
Al-Qawalish is about 50km west of Gharyan, the last city in the Nafusa Mountain range, which runs east from the border with Tunisia and has been controlled mostly by rebels since the uprising against Gaddafi broke out in mid-February.
Gharyan - still controlled by the regime - lies astride a major north-south highway that connects Tripoli with Sabha, a town in the southern desert that is held by Gaddafi's forces and has been used to supply his troops and regime-held areas.
The rebel fighters in Nafusa hope to take Gharyan and cut off Gaddafi's supplies. From Gharyan, they can also mount an advance on the capital.
"The capture of the town of al-Qawalish is an important step in that direction," our correspondent said. "The overall strategy of these fighters is clearly to reach Tripoli."
But while rebel advances in Nafusa been steady, they have also been slow, and the fighters must now take 50km of Gaddafi-held territory to reach Gharyan.
As rebels scored military victories in the western mountains, their compatriots in the rebel-held cities of Misurata and Benghazi staged huge demonstrations to show their support.
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Tens of thousands of opposition supporters filled the streets of Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital in the east, holding anti-Gaddafi caricatures and shouting "Go Gaddafi go" and "God is great".
A helicopter, its shiny surface plastered with Libya's monarchy-era tricolour flag, hovered low above the crowd. Some fired their AK-47 rifles into the air in jubilation.
A smaller demonstration was held in Misurata, which broke out of a loyalist siege in May but still endures near-daily rocket attack.
The co-ordinated shows of support were meant to counter a pro-regime demonstration held in Tripoli last Friday, which saw an enormous crowd take to the capital's streets waving Gaddafi's all-green flag.
Amid the continuing battles, a senior Chinese official held talks with rebels in Benghazi on Wednesday in renewed a bid to push for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
Chen Xiadong, China's ministry chief for North African affairs, called on the rebels and pro-Gaddafi forces to begin negotiations for a ceasefire, Chinese state media reported.
Chen also told Ali Essawi, the deputy head of the rebel group, that China considered the faction "an important dialogue partner", echoing comments made by senior Chinese officials on rebel diplomatic chief Mahmoud Jibril's visit to Beijing, China's capital, in late June.
In an earlier development, an unnamed senior Russian official was quoted on Tuesday as saying Gaddafi would consider stepping down under certain circumstances. His departure, if realised, would meet the rebels' central demand.
"The colonel is sending signals that he is ready to cede power in exchange for security guarantees," the daily Kommersant newspaper quoted the official as saying.
The Russian source added that France appeared to be the country most willing to play a part in Gaddafi's potential transfer of power. He said Paris could choose to unfreeze some of the Gaddafi family's accounts and promise to help him avoid trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The rebels have rejected any proposed deal that would leave Gaddafi in power.
The conflict in Libya has raged since March after protests broke out against Gaddafi's long rule, inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
Source: Al Jazeera and Agencies