- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 17, 2011

ZAWIYA, Libya (AP) — Rebels battled Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s loyalists for control of Libya’s only functioning oil refinery in the western city of Zawiya on Wednesday as the opposition tried to cut off fuel supplies to the regime’s stronghold of Tripoli.

Rebel fighter Ramadan Keshada said his forces control parts of the refinery complex in the city’s north on the Mediterranean coast, while some regime troops and civilian workers remain inside. He said rebels and regime forces clashed there on Tuesday, and then the opposition fighters pulled out at nightfall and made a new push in the daylight.

An Associated Press photographer entered the refinery with the rebels and heard sniper fire.

The Libyan rebels made a dramatic advance over the weekend out of their bases in the western mountains near the border with Tunisia into Zawiya, just 30 miles from the capital, Tripoli. They took control of parts of the city but have been fighting fierce battles with Col. Gadhafi’s forces to hold their ground and take more territory.

The rebel advance is tightening the noose around Tripoli. The fighters are closing in on the capital from the west and the south, while NATO controls the seas off Tripoli, which sits on the Mediterranean coast. Hundreds of miles away from the capital, the opposition is in control of most of the eastern half of the country and has a transitional leadership council in its de facto capital of Benghazi.

Osama Arousi, a rebel spokesman in Zawiya, told the AP the gas pipeline from Zawiya to Tripoli has been cut off by the rebels. The rebels claimed to have cut the pipelines earlier in the week as well.

He said Col. Gadhafi’s forces have shut the gate of the residential compound for refinery workers and their families. Many of the workers were evacuated early in the civil war that started in February.

An Associated Press reporter in Zawiya saw three pickup trucks loaded with fighters speeding toward the refinery.

The capture of the 120,000-barrel-per-day refinery in Zawiya is more a symbolic coup for the rebels than one that has a major impact on Col. Gadhafi’s ability to secure fuel, analysts said.

The flow of crude to the refinery from fields in the southwest of Libya largely has been halted since midsummer and the refinery was believed to be running at about one-third of its normal capacity, drawing mainly on crude oil that was in its storage tanks. But Zawiya mostly produced fuel oil, not gasoline, which Col. Gadhafi was trucking in mainly from Tunisia and, to a lesser extent, Algeria.

“In that sense, it’s more significant that [the rebels] have got control of the roads than the refinery,” said John Hamilton, a Libya energy expert with Cross-Border Information and a contributing editor of Africa Energy. “Strategically, that’s a more important gain for the rebels. Having control of the roads makes it much harder for Gadhafi to get the petrol he needs.”

The refinery supplies oil and gas to Tripoli, Col. Gadhafi’s stronghold and home to a third of Libya’s 6 million people.

On a second front hundreds of miles to the east of Zawiya around the oil-refining town of Brega, rebels clashed with Gadhafi troops for control of the refinery there.

A rebel physician in Brega, Dr. Mohammed Idris, said the field hospital in Brega was overwhelmed by the number of casualties and many wounded were sent to Benghazi for treatment.

He said that as of Tuesday night, 18 rebels had been killed and 74 injured.

Rebel fighter Moussa Ahmaid, who was escorting the wounded rebels to the hospital, said the fighting is mainly on the southern side of Brega.

“We are using light, hand-held weapons and mortars,” he told the AP. “Most of our casualties are from sniper fire or shrapnel from shelling.”

Associated Press writer Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo contributed to this report.

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