TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Moammar Gadhafi loyalists swept into the opposition-held city closest to Tripoli on Saturday, tightening security around the regime-held capital. To the east, rebel forces captured a key oil port as the country veered toward civil war.
Rebels said government forces had moved in to Zawiya, west of the capital, with tanks and dozens of people had been injured, but they vowed to keep up the fight. One rebel said the hospital was under control of pro-Gadhafi forces so the injured were being taken to a makeshift clinic set up in a mosque or to private homes for treatment.
“The number of people killed is so big. The number of the wounded is so big. The number of tanks that entered the city is big,” he said, although he couldn’t provide a specific casualty toll.
Opposition forces in the east, meanwhile, advanced west in a push toward Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte, a day after the port city of Ras Lanouf fell to the rebellion.
The contrasting fortunes of the two warring sides suggest that the conflict in Libya could last for weeks and maybe months, with neither side mustering enough military power to decisively defeat the other. The government is fighting fiercely to maintain its hold in Tripoli and surrounding areas and the rebels are pushing their front westward from their eastern stronghold.
Gadhafi, who has led the country virtually unchecked for four decades, has unleashed a violent crackdown against those seeking his ouster, drawing international condemnation and sanctions.
Hundreds have been killed, perhaps more, putting pressure on the international community to do more to stop the crackdown on protests that began on Feb. 15, inspired by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, its neighbors to the east and west respectively.
President Barack Obama has insisted that Gadhafi must leave and said his administration was considering a full range of options, including the imposition of a “no-fly” zone over Libya.
So far, Gadhafi has had little success in taking back territory, with the entire eastern half of the country and some cities near the capital under rebel control. But the opposition forces have had limited success in marching on pro-Gadhafi areas, leading to a standoff that could last for weeks and maybe months, with neither side mustering enough military power to decisively defeat the other.
Saturday’s assault on Zawiya, a city of some 200,000 people just 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli, began with a surprise dawn attack by pro-Gadhafi forces firing mortar shells and machine guns.
Witnesses who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone with the rattle of gunfire and explosions in the background said the shelling damaged government buildings and homes. The fighting sparked several fires, sending a cloud of heavy black smoke over the city, and witnesses said snipers were shooting at anybody on the streets, including residents who ventured onto balconies.
Initially, the rebels retreated to positions deeper in the city before they launched a counteroffensive in which they regained some of the lost territory, according to three residents and activists, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
By midafternoon, the rebels had reoccupied central Martyrs’ Square while the pro-regime forces regrouped on the city’s fringes, sealing off the city’s entry and exit routes, the witnesses said.
“We will fight them on the streets and will never give up so long as Gadhafi is still in power,” said one of the rebels, who also declined to be identified for the same reason.
Pro-Gadhafi forces on foot and firing artillery, mortars and other heavy weapons launched a new attack on Zawiya in late afternoon from the south and west, two other witnesses said by telephone.