Libyan rebels Wednesday seized the desert hamlet of Gualish on the first day of a NATO-backed push on the capital Tripoli and captured a number of African mercenaries, an AFP correspondent reported.
Buoyed by French arms drops and NATO-led air strikes, the rebels attacked positions in the Gualish area, in the plains north of their enclave in the Nafusa mountains southwest of Tripoli.
The correspondent, embedded with the rebels, said insurgent fighters were searching houses in Gualish, while gunfire could be heard in the distance.
It was not immediately clear if the shooting was in celebration, or if sporadic fighting was continuing.
During the operation, they captured a number of mercenaries, some of whom were seen in a pick-up truck and told AFP they were from Ghana and Mali.
Earlier, a rebel leader from the hill town of Zintan said his forces had coordinated their assault with NATO, which has stepped up its bombing campaign by destroying frontline armour of Moamer Gaddafi's regime in the past week.
"We waited before launching this assault and finally got the green light from NATO this morning and the offensive began," the rebel leader said.
There were intense exchanges of artillery, mortar and cannon fire between the rebel fighters and government troops dug in around Gualish, the AFP correspondent reported.
NATO-led warplanes flew over the battlefield but there were no immediate air strikes.
The area targeted by the rebel offensive is seen as strategic as it also features the garrison city of Gharyan, a government stronghold in the Nafusa mountains.
In an operational update, NATO said Wednesday it struck four tanks and two armed vehicles in Gharyan, along with command and control centres near the rebel-held western city of Misrata and eastern oil town of Brega.
After a retreat from around the plains town of Bir al-Ghanam last week, spokesman Colonel Ahmed Omar Bani had pledged on Saturday that the rebel army would soon try to push the front line northwards.
"In the next two days, the (revolutionaries) will come up with answers. Things will change on the front line," he said.
Wednesday's offensive comes a day after France said it no longer needs to drop weapons to the rebels fighting the Gaddafi regime since they are getting more organised and can arrange to arm themselves.
"The (rebel) territories are organising their autonomy ... That is why the parachute drops are no longer necessary," French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said.
However, he cautioned against the rebels' chances of defeating Gaddafi and pushing toward the capital.
Paris acknowledged last week it has made a series of parachute drops of weapons, including rocket launchers, to Berber rebel fighters in the Nafusa Mountains in a move criticised by Russia and the African Union.
Last week the rebels also seized regime bunkers containing rockets, machine guns and other munitions in the desert about 25 kilometres (15 miles) south of Zintan.
On Tuesday, shelling by forces loyal to Gaddafi killed 11 people and wounded dozens more -- mostly civilians -- around the besieged enclave of Misrata, 200 kilometres (120 miles) east of Tripoli, the insurgents said.
The attacks marked another bloody milestone for Misrata, Libya's third-largest city that has been shelled almost continuously since March.
Across the Gulf of Sirte, on the eastern front line, a rebel representative said nine Gaddafi soldiers were captured between the strategic towns of Ajdabiya and Brega.
On the diplomatic front, an unnamed senior Russian official was quoted Tuesday as saying Gaddafi would consider stepping down -- an offer that, if realised, would meet the rebels' central demand.
The rebels have thus far rejected any deal that would leave Gaddafi in power.
Meanwhile preparations were underway for a international meeting on Libya in Istanbul on July 15-16, as diplomats increasingly mull what post-Gaddafi Libya might look like, with many hoping to avoid Iraq or Afghanistan-style chaos.
NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Tuesday the alliance would like to see the United Nations assume the lead role in Libya's transition to democracy in the event Gaddafi leaves power.