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Libyan rebels win battle in west, push on from east

Libyan forces close in on Zawiyah for second time in a day, report further advances west of oil port Ras Lanuf

  • Protersters celebrate after fighting against Gaddafi troops
    Libyan rebels who are part of the forces against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi hold a pre-Gaddafi flag as theImage Credit: AP
  • Protersters celebrate after fighting against Gaddafi troops
    Mourners react next to a coffin containing the body of a man who was killed in weapons dump attack, in BenghazImage Credit: Reuters
  • Protersters celebrate after fighting against Gaddafi troops
    A Libyan rebel who is part of the forces against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi dances as he and others rally bImage Credit: AP
  • Protersters celebrate after fighting against Gaddafi troops
    A Libyan rebel who is part of the forces against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi shouts after hearing governmentImage Credit: AP
  • Protersters celebrate after fighting against Gaddafi troops
    A young man who has joined the forces against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi helpshandle ammunition at a miliImage Credit: AP
  • Protersters celebrate after fighting against Gaddafi troops
    A rebel fighter fires an anti-aircraft gun during a battle near Ras Lanoof on March 4, 2011. Heavily armed rebImage Credit: Reuters
  • Protersters celebrate after fighting against Gaddafi troops
    A rebel fighter holds a Kingdom of Libya flag and a knife during shelling by soldiers loyal to Libyan leader MImage Credit: Reuters

Zawiyah: Libyan forces closed in on the western town of Zawiyah on Saturday after rebels drove them from the centre in fierce fighting, while in the east, opponents of Muammar Gaddafi pushed towards his home town.

"They entered Zawiyah at six in the morning with heavy forces, hundreds of soldiers with tanks. Our people fought back ...We have won for now and civilians are gathering in the square," said Yousuf Shagan, the rebel force spokesman in Zawiyah, west of the capital Tripoli.

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People opposed to Gaddafi's 41-year rule have been fighting his forces in Zawiyah for more than a week, after rebels took over swathes of eastern Libya in an uprising inspired by the overthrow of longterm rulers in Egypt and Tunisia this year.

Shagan said Gaddafi forces had fired high explosive rounds in central streets and dragged people from their homes. There were many casualties among civilians, rebels and soldiers, he said, although he could not give a precise number.

"We captured 3 APCs, two tanks and one pick-up after an hour and a half of fighting," he said, adding that government snipers had taken up positions in Zawiyah.

By mid-morning, the Mediterranean town was encircled by Gaddafi's forces, who were manning checkpoints some 3km from the centre.

A rebel fighter in the centre of the Mediterranean town vowed to fight to the death.

"Gaddafi will never enter this city. He will never set foot here. The only way for him to enter the city is when we are all dead. He has to kill us all to control the city," the rebel, who gave his name as Ibrahim, said by telephone.

Rebels in eastern Libya said they were pushing further west after driving out forces loyal to Gaddafi from the oil town of Ras Lanuf on Friday.

They said they had fired on an army helicopter swooping over Ras Lanuf on Saturday.

Doctors said at least 26 people had died in Friday's fighting around Ras Lanuf and what rebels said was an attack by Gaddafi's forces on an arms store on the edge of the eastern town of Benghazi, where the uprising began in mid-February.

Rebel fighters said they had taken the town of Bin Jawad some 525 km east of Tripoli and were moving on towards Sirte, Gadaffi's heavily guarded home town.

There was no sign of Gaddafi's forces or rebels in Bin Jawad on Saturday morning. Some rebels said they had sent reconnaisance missions there while the main rebel force amassed in Ras Lanuf to move ahead.

The latest fighting suggested front lines between his forces and the rebels, who are fighting with everything from captured tanks to sticks, were far from clear and could shift quickly.

The rebel flag waved over a major roundabout in Ras Lanuf on Saturday and there was no sign of pro-Gaddafi soldiers, although the government had denied the rebel claim on Friday to be in control of the town, east of Tripoli.

At the entrance to the town, half a dozen soldiers manned a rebel checkpoint. Asked if rebels were in charge of the whole town, one soldier replied: "Everything, 100 percent, it is completely safe."

A day earlier, flashes and thuds had resounded from fighting around Ras Lanuf, an oil terminal of the OPEC producer that sits on the Mediterranean coast. Helicopters had strafed positions of rebels, who fired rifles back.

Gaddafi forces bomb arms store
Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi bombed an arms depot on the outskirts of Libya's second city of Benghazi, a rebel spokesman said on Saturday.

AFP put the death toll at 27. The area around was cordoned off by rebel security forces, a Reuters witness said. There was a heavy smell of smoke and at least eight ambulances were seen ferrying casualties away from the scene.

"A lot of people have been killed. There are many people in the hospital. No one can approach, It's still very dangerous," said a resident who would only identify himself as Saleh.

He said he did not know what had caused the fire.

Another resident, who identified himself as Miftah, said that a fire engine was destroyed by the conflagration and houses collapsed nearby.

It was one of biggest weapons dumps in Benghazi region. The resident said, who works at a power station nearby, said windows were broken by the explosion several kilometres away. "The fire is still raging and we fear more explosions," Miftah said.

Scores die in offensive

Gaddafi's regime struck back at its opponents Friday, launching a powerful attack on the closest opposition-held city to Tripoli and firing tear gas and live ammunition to smother new protests in the capital. At least 37 people died in fighting and in an explosion at an ammunitions depot in Libya's rebellious east, reports AP.

The Libyan army has staged a prolonged artillery barrage on the city of Zawiya, west of Tripoli, and there have been many casualties, a spokesman for the revolutionaries said.

"There has been heavy shelling of Zawiya by [Muammar] Gaddafi's forces and we are hearing of many casualties. How many, I don't know," Mustafa Gheriani, a spokesman for the rebel February 17th Coalition, said.

Reuters reported that more than 30 people were killed while Al Jazeera put the death toll at 50.

Libyan state television has claimed that Zawiya was back under government control.

Meanwhile, revolutionaries on Friday claimed to have captured the strategic city of Ras Lanoof as pro-Gaddafi forces carried out airstrikes in several nearby cities hoping to ward off advancing revolutionary forces who have their eye on the capital Tripoli, Gaddafi's stronghold.

Gulf News spoke with a man who was guarding the oil refinery in Brega, a nearby city, who said that the airstrikes "seemed to avoid sensitive areas on purpose" either to avoid killing people or just to intimidate the revolutionary fighters, he speculated.

Regime demands UN suspend sanctions

On Friday, Gaddafi's regime demanded that the UN Security Council suspend sanctions taken against the Libyan leader over his crackdown on opposition protests.

Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Kussa said in a letter to the UN Security Council said that only "a modicum" of force has been used against opposition demonstrators and that the government was "taken aback" by the sanctions.

The regime called for the travel ban and assets freeze ordered again Gaddafi and his entourage "to be suspended until such time as the truth is established."

Kussa demanded that the Security Council "stand up to the states that are threatening force against it."

With inputs from Abbas Al Lawati, Staff Reporter, and agencies