Libyan rebels preparing to strike into Qaddafi's heartland around Tripoli were pushed back by loyalist forces raising questions about their ability to mount a serious offensive, the Telegraph reports.

Qaddafi's troops seized the scenic hillside village of Qawalish after a dawn raid, an unexpected battlefield victory that threw rebel plans of advancing on the strategic garrison town of Gharyan, 50 miles south of Tripoli, into disarray.

Rebel fighters forces had been marketing their planned offensive on Gharyan, the largest town in the largely rebel-held Nafusa Mountains, as a potentially pivotal moment in the five-month campaign to oust Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi.

But Qaddafi has been laying the groundwork for a fierce defense and the comparative ease with which his forces routed the rebels is likely to reinforce NATO fears the rebels are overextended and lack the capacity to advance on Libya's capital.

Such an assessment is rendered all the more gloomy when the forces in the Nafusa Mountains, so close to Tripoli, were increasingly being viewed as the most promising of the rebels' three thrusts of attack.

"It is not a defeat for us," Colonel Mohammed Ahmed Khabasha, the chief of the rebel military council in Zintan, the principal opposition stronghold in the Nafusa Mountains, insisted.

"We only need a couple of hours to regain Qawalish."

Hundreds of rebel fighters poured out of Zintan in pickup trucks, caked in dry mud as camouflage and mounted with anti-aircraft guns, racing for the front lines.

But while they managed to halt a rapid the loyalist advance towards Zintan they were still stalemated and had not succeeded in recapturing Qawalish by nightfall.

Colonel Khabasha dismissed the village as having "no strategic importance," claiming that they had left it virtually empty.

Reporters who visited Qawalish before the attack say it was lightly defended, with only a few dozen fighters holding the front line against regular rocket attacks by loyalist forces stationed on a ridge just a mile away.

Pro-Qaddafi troops attempted to take the village three days ago, but on that occasion they were repulsed. Yet, despite that narrow escape, the rebels chose not to reinforce Qawalish.

The curious oversight, given the ferocity of last week's battle that saw the rebels take Qawalish, and the fact that they cannot hope to advance on Gharyan unless they hold the village, is likely to vex NATO leaders, who have been betting on the rebels.

Rebels have long complained of munitions shortages as well as a dearth of petrol and cash. France says it has airdropped weapons in the Nafusa Mountains, but a number of rebels say they have seen no evidence of them.

Nor has NATO helicopter cover been provided for rebel assaults leading some to suggest the alliance is hedging its bets.

France, yesterday, revealed it was carrying on a dialogue with Qaddafi despite NATO's backing of the rebels.