ZAWIYA, Libya — Libyan rebels claimed Sunday they were trying to cut off two key supply routes to Moammar Gadhafi’s stronghold in Tripoli after capturing more towns in the west of the country. The opposition fighters also battled government forces for control of the strategic city of Zawiya, just 30 miles from the capital.
The rebel advances over the past few days out of the western mountains near Tunisia into Zawiya on the Mediterranean coast and other nearby towns marked the most significant gains after months of stalemate in the civil war. Rebel leaders said they hope to take Tripoli before the end of this month, an ambitious goal.
Col. Jumma Ibrahim, a rebel spokesman in the western mountains, said his fighters are moving closer to blocking major supply routes to Tripoli from the south and west. The routes are critical for moving food, fuel and weapons over land to the capital.
“This means we are choking Gadhafi,” he said. “He only has the sea.”
He said rebel forces captured the town of Gharyan, 80 kilometres south of Tripoli, which he said controls the supply road from southern Libya to the capital.
Omar Obeid, field commander for the Sabratha area, 20 miles west of Zawiya on the coast, said rebels have taken up positions in houses along a major supply route there that connects the Ras Ajdir border crossing with Tunisia to Tripoli. The same road runs through Zawiya, where rebels could also block it if they manage to take control of the city.
With NATO imposing a no-fly zone over Libya for months and bombarding regime targets, the coastal road has become a lifeline between the capital and the outside world.
Rebels said they also captured the town of Surman, near Sabratha to the southeast.
After rebels advanced into Zawiya on Saturday, regime forces mounted heavy resistance Sunday with the opposition fighters trying to push deeper into the city of 200,000.
Pro-Gadhafi snipers shot at the opposition fighters from an overpass deep in the city, while loud booms echoed and a column of heavy black smoke rose over the outskirts. Dozens of civilians crammed in cars with their belongings fled the city. In one car, four women cried desperately, and a man driving shouted that there were dead people in his neighbourhood.
Rebel pickup trucks with anti-aircraft weapons and machine-guns mounted on the back sped along Bir Ghanam street, a main road leading into downtown Zawiya from the south. In one courtyard along the street, the bodies of two men, wrapped in blankets, were ringed by a crowd of crying men.
The staging ground for the 3-week-old offensive in western Libya has been the mountain town of Zintan, where many fighters regroup every evening after battle. At dusk on Sunday, long columns of pickup trucks drove into the city from the coastal plain, honking horns and shooting in the air in a triumphant victory procession. One convoy was led by a large battle tank the rebels had captured.
The hospital in Zintan had nine dead rebels from fighting in Surman Sunday and more than 50 wounded from various battles, said Mohammed Salem, a hospital official.
Zawiya rose up against the regime shortly after the revolt against Gadhafi began in February. But Gadhafi’s forces crushed opposition in the city in a long and bloody siege in March.
Many rebel fighters from Zawiya fled into the farmlands surrounding the city and western mountains further away, waiting for the right time to join in a new offensive to retake their city. Zawiya had been a key target for western mountain rebels and some of those who fled the city earlier were among the forces that advanced on the city Saturday.
“There were sleeper cells of rebels inside Zawiya,” Abdel-Bassit Abu Riyak, a rebel fighter in Zawiya, told the AP.
He said that when the fighters in the western mountains arrived to Zawiya, the cell rose up and helped to attack the Gadhafi troops.
“Freedom, freedom,” chanted a group of men greeting rebels inside Zawiya early on Sunday. One of those in the crowd rolled up his pants to show black-and-blue bruises he said came from a beating by pro-Gadhafi forces who have been in control of the city for months.
“From March until last night, we felt fear. But when the rebels came, we were really happy,” said Rabih Aboul-Gheit, an accountant in Zawiya.
The city was tense on Sunday, with the rebels erecting numerous checkpoints inside and on the road leading to it from the west. At one checkpoint, rebels fired in the air to restore order when a crowd gathered around a man who refused to open his car’s trunk for inspection.
“Fifth column, fifth column,” shouted the crowd, suggesting that the motorist may be a spy for Gadhafi forces. He eventually opened the trunk to show there was nothing suspicious.
Elsewhere in the city, eight African men were rounded up by the rebels and taken to the local intelligence building. Residents shouted “mercenaries” at them as they were driven across the city to the building, torched during fighting back in February.
The eight men were handcuffed and looked frightened as they sat inside the building. One of the eight, Nigerian Paul Joseph, said he was a worker in Zawiya and that he was arrested by rebels at his apartment.
“I left my seven-months pregnant wife behind in the flat,” said Joseph. “We have been trying to get out of Zawiya, but could not.”
Outside Zawiya, civilian cars were stopped at checkpoints and searched. Fighter Abdel-Monem Mohammed said he confiscated nine automatic weapons
“No civilians are allowed to carry weapons,” he told the AP.
A total death toll was impossible to verify during the height of the chaotic fighting, but Mohammed said Gadhfai troops struck a mosque in the city centre, killing eight people and injuring 25.
With the arrival of the western mountain rebels, stories of life in Zawiya over the past few months began to trickle out.
Hossam Hawissa, 28, said he worked as a lawyer there before life came to a “standstill.” He said Gadhafi forces set up a checkpoint in front of his house, stole his laptop and money.
“They would pat me down every time I left my house,” he said.
Libya’s border with the Mediterranean Sea is populated with major cities and towns, between the borders with Tunisia in the west and Egypt in the east — two countries that successfully ousted their leaders in uprisings earlier this year that inspired the Libyan revolt.
The eastern half of the country is now firmly in rebel control, with a transitional leadership based in the de facto capital of Benghazi.
The east’s main front line is at the strategic oil terminal of Brega, which has passed back and forth many times between rebel and regime control. Brega is nearly 800 kilometres west of Zawiya.
According to a rebel spokesman in the east, Gadhafi troops blew up a storage tank filled with crude oil as rebels continued to make progress in capturing Brega, about 200 kilometres southwest of Benghazi.
“We have control of all the residential compounds of Brega and we’re clashing with Gadhafi troops in the industrial town,” said rebel spokesman Mohammed al-Zwawi.