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Tripoli residents scramble to flee as rebels draw closer

Libyans Holding The Old Libyan Flag. (AFP Photo)

ZAWIYAH, Libya: Libyan rebels claimed Friday to have taken two more key objectives in their advance on Tripoli, including the refinery town of Zawiyah, as people scrambled to flee the increasingly isolated capital.

Insurgents said they seized Zliten from forces loyal to strongman Moammar Gadhafi, only hours after reporting they were in the center of the town, 150 kilometers east of Tripoli.

“Zliten is now under the control of our fighters, but the fighting is not finished,” the information center for the Misrata Military Council said.

The offensive was launched around 07:30 a.m. and “at 1:00 p.m. our information indicates that rebel troops entered the city center,” it said.

“Gadhafi forces have used tanks to try unsuccessfully to repel the rebels. There are dead and injured rebels,” the Information Center added.

“Between 40 and 50 Gadhafi forces were killed” in the fighting, while some 12 African mercenaries were captured, the statement said, adding that 40 insurgents were wounded, 10 of them seriously.

Rebels also claimed to control Zawiyah and controlled its key refinery after seizing the hospital, an AFP journalist said.

“Zawiyah is free,” said rebels as they took up positions in the hospital hours after pounding the center of the town, which is the last major barrier before the rebels can consider advancing on Tripoli from the west.

Hundreds of rebels armed with assault rifles had marched from the central square, a stronghold of forces loyal to Gadhafi, to the hospital, which was decorated with green flags and portraits of the veteran leader.

Gadhafi snipers were staked out on rooftops as the battles raged, with buildings and streets in the town center showing signs of massive damage from the warfare.

Rebels Thursday said they had seized the refinery but Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi Mahmudi rejected the claim outright, saying it was “without doubt” still in loyalists’ hands.

The refinery, the only one in western Libya, is vital to the Gadhafi regime, as it supplies fuel to Tripoli. Earlier in the day, fierce fighting was reported in Zawiyah, Reuters witnesses said, in an apparent counter-offensive by Gadhafi’s forces against rebels advancing toward Tripoli.

Sustained blasts from rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and anti-aircraft guns were heard from the direction of Zawiyah’s central square as a black column of smoke rose into the evening sky, the reporters on the outskirts of the city said.

Gadhafi’s prime minister said Thursday the government would overcome the rebel uprising in “a few days.”

Recent rebel advances have isolated the Libyan capital and trapped thousands of foreigners in Tripoli, who will be evacuated in a massive international rescue, probably by sea, an international body said Friday.

A spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration, Jemini Pandya, said that the operation to rescue thousands of Egyptians and other foreigners trapped in Tripoli by the latest fighting would commence within days.

“We are looking at all options available, but it will probably have to be by sea,” she said while answering questions at a Geneva news conference.

More than 600,000 of an estimated 1.5 million to 2.5 million foreigners, mostly Asian and African migrant workers, have fled Libya in six months of fighting. However, many thousands remained in Tripoli, which until this week was far from fighting and a safe two-hour drive by car from the Tunisian border. That route has been cut since the rebels entered Zawiyah, which straddles the coastal highway, six days ago.

With the rebels making advances on the ground, NATO forces continued their campaign from the air with alliance war planes pounding targets in the capital during the night. Libyan officials brought journalists to a residential district where a compound comprised of several large buildings was largely destroyed in an airstrike. Neighbors said it belonged to Abdullah al-Senussi, Gadhafi’s brother-in-law and head of intelligence.

In Tripoli, Omar Masood, an oil engineer who lives across the street from the compound that was destroyed, said it had been struck before dawn and belonged to Senussi, one of the most senior figures in Gaddafi’s leadership.

Senussi, who is married to Gadhafi’s sister, is one of three figures along with Gadhafi and his son Saif al-Islam wanted by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for war crimes. The court’s prosecutor has accused him of killing civilians during the uprising.

“Even if he was someone from the intelligence [services], it wouldn’t justify an attack on a residential house,” said Aref Fahim Ahmad, another neighbor. NATO says it is bombing military targets to protect civilians.

In another sign the fighting is hitting closer to Gadhafi’s inner circle, the brother of the spokesman who has served as the Tripoli government’s public face was reported killed in a front line city.

A government official said the brother of Moussa Ibrahim – the spokesman whose briefings have been broadcast worldwide throughout the six-month-old uprising – was killed in an attack by a NATO helicopter gunship in the central square of Zawiyah.

The 25-year-old student, Hasan Ali, had gone there with a group of others to check on friends, the official said.

Ibrahim, who has repeatedly denied reports of rebel advances, said on state television Thursday, “We reassure people that we are making progress on all fronts.” According to the JANA news agency, he promised all Libyans payments of 500 dinars, about $300, as reward for being steadfast.

NBC News reported Friday that Gadhafi was making preparations to leave Libya with his family, for possible exile in Tunisia, but that it was unclear if he would follow through. NBC said the information came from U.S. officials who cited intelligence reports.

East of the capital, where fighting has been bloody and advances slow, rebels launched an assault Friday but were taking heavy casualties, a Reuters reporter there said.

West of Tripoli, rebel fighters held meetings Friday with local leaders in Sabratha a day after capturing it. The ancient Roman town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was quiet during the day.

Rebels also seized Garyan this week, a town which straddles the main route to the capital from the south. A Reuters reporter in the town said it was largely quiet Friday, although gunfire could be heard in the distance. Hospital officials said one rebel had died and three were seriously hurt the previous day in clashes with Gadhafi troops west of the town.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 20, 2011, on page 1.

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