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Libyan rebels strike crucial blow as they enter Zawiyah

Libyan forces fighting troops loyal to Col Muammar Gaddafi have struck a crucial blow, storming into a town just west of the capital Tripoli and cutting off the regime’s supply route to the outside world.


Rebels were still engaged in street fighting with loyalist forces in the town of Zawiyah, 30 miles west of Tripoli and already the scene of one major battle early in the conflict.

Both sides were sustaining losses, according to reports from a confused front line. Among the dead were four rebel victims of “friendly fire”, hit by a missile fired by a Nato jet aimed at a Gaddafi tank they had just captured and were driving away.

Regime spokesmen claimed that the fighting in Zawiyah, which lies on the coast and is home to one of Libya’s two main oil refineries, was a “skirmish” with a “suicide squad” of 100 rebel fighters.

But at the same time a regime minibus, which was taking journalists on Saturday evening to Tripoli from the Tunisian border two hours’ drive to the west, was turned back and minders said it had no way of reaching the capital. The main road runs through Zawiyah and remained in rebel hands last night.

With the rebels controlling the south-west of the country and Misurata, on the main road east, and Nato patrolling the sea, Col Gaddafi’s main supply routes were all shut off.


The rebels, increasingly confident of military success even as its political leadership is more and more riven by splits, were also fighting for control of Garyan, a strategic town which guards the main road to the south of the country. The capital has already begun to suffer power cuts.

The successful rebel push has come from the direction seen as least likely when Nato bombing began in March. Scattered villages and towns that had been seized by rebels, often from the country’s Berber minority, nevertheless managed to forge a successful fighting force and take strategic mountain positions before descending to the plain and gradually encroaching on the coastal settlements.

The government accused the rebel fighters of an attack that cut a pipeline supplying gas to an electricity plant in the last weeks of July. By Saturday, when a Daily Telegraph journalist entered the town, green-fatigued soldiers could be seen lurking in the interior of shops and lock-ups, clearly on the lookout for any signs of the rebels.

At several key intersections, sandbagged foxholes had been erected only in the previous few days and ambush points were clearly visible on balconies – still poking out from shattered windows and holes in the masonry left from the March fighting.

Even so, the strength of the assault came as a surprise. Khaled Kaim, the deputy foreign minister, had on Saturday morning poured scorn on the chances of a rebel attack.

“In their dreams they can take Zawiyah,” he said.

Regime troops had retreated to defend the oil refinery itself, near the sea in the town’s north. Rebel tricolor flags had been raised in parts of the town.

Zawiyah’s recapture would be a symbolic as well as strategic victory. Its centre was overrun by rebels early in the uprising but regime forces in the first half of March launched an all-out assault to recapture it.

The ferocity of that assault, with tanks blowing up rebel hide-outs in residential areas, including a mosque in the city centre, and opposition supporters being rounded up and led off to prison, was partly responsible for the Nato intervention. Western leaders watching Col Gaddafi’s troops advancing on the main rebel cities of Ajdabiya, Benghazi and Tobruk in the east feared a similar bloodbath there.

The rebel forces were met with residents pouring out of their houses cheering “Allahu akbar” – God is Great – even as shooting could be heard in the background.

“Our forces are in control of the western and southern gates of Zawiyah, and have pushed three kilometres into the city,” Bashir Ahmed Ali, a rebel battalion commander, told news agency reporters travelling with him.

“Regime forces are in control of the east and main centre of the town, where snipers are stationed on top of many buildings. We have suffered many casualties from the snipers.

“There are also snipers in the residential areas, where some families are virtual hostages in their own homes.”

A spokesman for the Transitional National Council from Zawiyah said it feared the arrival of government reinforcements.

But he added: “If Zawiyah falls, we will be able to control everything east of Tripoli to the Tunisian border. This is the beginning of the end for Gaddafi.”

There remain a number of well-defended loyalist strongholds around Tripoli, which will not fall easily.

On Libya’s eastern front, rebels were seeking to seize control of the country’s other main oil refinery, near Brega. The town has been the effective front line for most of the last four months, with rebels seizing some residential areas in July.

Sunday night, they were advancing on the refinery and industrial centres to the west of the main town.

Filed in: World News

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