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Libya: rooftop sniper takes a heavy toll in Zawiyah, a city waiting to fall

The euphoria of victory is not yet upon the Libyan rebels of Zawiyah.


Despite a lightning advance which has all but captured this key strategic oil town just 30 miles from Tripoli, the fighters of the volunteer army hoping to unseat Col Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan regime are being held at bay, in part, by one man and a gun.

From the rooftops around the city’s Martyr’s Square, a single sniper has brought one wave of the assault along Libya’s western coast to something of a standstill.

“This sniper is really tormenting us,” says Hareth al-Fasi, a 24-year-old surgeon’s son and student from Sutton Coldfield, who has joined the opposition.

“The freedom fighters have tried everything to hit him but have seen nothing more than a rifle muzzle.”

The death of a woman shot in her front room has only added to the singular mystique of a killer ensconced in high buildings and who is said to have accounted for six of the 12 opposition fighters killed on Monday.

In truth, though, it is not just one man who stands in the way of victory. Zawiyah is a city ready to fall and it appears that Gaddafi forces know their fate and have hit back at the advance with ever more reckless abandon. Grad missiles have rained down on districts seized by rebel troops. Rockets and mortars have stopped ground advances in other disputed territories.

The chaos of war is evident throughout.

Pick-up trucks with anti-aircraft guns and single-barrelled rocket launchers fixed to the back tray rush in convoys into Zawiyah along the rebel-held Bir Ghanem street. On the other side of the highway, however, family cars stacked high with bedding head to the safety of the mountains.

After sweeping into the town on Saturday night, the rebel forces say they are marshalled for a tough fight.

“We are encouraging these people to leave so that we clear the government troops out of those neighbourhoods where Gaddafi’s militias are preparing to attack us,” Abdul Moaz Ramadan, 20, a checkpoint commander said.

Inside Zawiyah’s central streets, a battle of nerves between the rival armies has been shaped by the barrage of artillery and rockets.

A shrapnel fragment from a mortar sliced into the head of Omar Ali Misawi as a small unit of fighters advanced under the shop awnings on Omar al-Mukhtar street, formerly a shopping district. In a fug of concussion afterwards, he promised to press on as soon as a bandage was found.

“We are taking the fight to them,” he said. “There is no going back.”

Opposition commanders have pledged to make headway against the ferocious counter-assault, despite the heavy toll both on their ranks and civilian casualties.

“When we make our way into any city the government start firing rockets and missiles to make us leave and inflict suffering on civilians. We’re prepared for this,” said Mukhtar Mohammad, the commander of western mountain forces fighting in the town.

In February, Zawiyah staged a rebellion against Col Gaddafi which was brutally crushed in three bloody weeks.

A second rebellion is now evident with the incoming fighters enjoying the advantage of widespread local support. Hundreds have crossed into rebel territory to volunteer for the anti-Gaddafi cause.

Mohammad Ahmed, a doctor at Zawiyah hospital, reached Bir Muammar, an opposition-held village, yesterday after he fled his job at the emergency department of the city’s main hospital. He said government forces ringed the hospital, after that he ran the gauntlet of streets under the sights of government troops.

“In some places I had to go very fast just to make it to the other side,” he said. “I was lucky to get away at all. The government troops are everywhere in Zawiyah hospital. Even in the emergency room there was a soldier with a gun standing over me. There are lots of freedom fighters around the hospital but the Gaddafi troops are using them as human shields.”

Rebel checkpoints collect lists of men missing or killed since February from Zawiyah residents. By yesterday afternoon one rebel official said 7,000 names had been compiled. That list is ever expanding.

Yesterday the leading surgeon at the rebels’ field hospital at Bir Muammar, Nadil Abdul Majid, said they had seen the body of a five-year-old boy who had been killed in government shelling. Ayud Hassan Sheroun’s life was ended by the fragments of a shell that crashed into his family home.

The anti-Gaddafi doctors celebrated the sacrifice of Sheroun’s young life as the latest martyr to fall in the cause of deposing the Brother Leader, who has ruled Libyan for almost 42 years. They realise that the battle for Zawiyah puts Col Gaddafi’s control over Tripoli and what is left of his country at stake.

Mansur Saif al-Nasr, the opposition National Transitional Council’s representative in Paris, said yesterday the movement was two weeks away from victory. Control of Zawiyah would open the way to Tripoli. “We are entering a decisive phase. This will allow the population there to revolt.”

Filed in: World News

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