Rebels fighting to end Libyan strongman Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s 42-year reign seized control of one key oil town in the west of the country, but suffered setbacks in another in the east on Saturday.
Rebels told The Washington Times that they had “liberated” the city of Zawiyah, 30 miles west of Tripoli.
“We control the main square. The town has been liberated from Gadhafi’s snipers,” said a rebel who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The rebels also took control of Zlitan, a city 100 miles east of Tripoli.
The advance tightens the encirclement of Tripoli.
While the rebels have closed in on the Libyan capital from the west, east and south, in the north NATO has 15 ships patrolling the Mediterranean Sea.
Zawiyah is the site of a key oil terminal that supplies the Libyan capital. Residents and rebels said the oil flow was shut off late last week.
Rebels succeeded in clearing the city of pro-Gadhafi snipers, some of whom had been holed up in a hospital in the southeastern part of the city. Most of the snipers were believed to be black African mercenaries loyal to the regime.
“There is a disaster in Zawiyah. All the buildings have been damaged; residents have been killed in their homes,” said Belgasem Zahef, a Zawiyah native who recently returned to his home in Montreal after spending over a month in detention. He was arrested in Zawiyah where he had gone to fight alongside the rebels.
Mr. Zahaf said the main prison in the city was overflowing with inmates who were forced to live in sub-human conditions and routinely tortured by their captors.
Rebels suffered a setback in Brega in the east where pro-Gadhafi forces waged a fierce battle to take back control of the oil port. A source near Brega said the rebels had “fallen back” under the heavy onslaught.
The rebels’ victory in Zawiya puts them closer to Tripoli where Col. Gadhafi, his family and members of the regime are based.
Residents of the Libyan capital on Saturday described a city under siege. Prices of fuel and food have skyrocketed and the city is enduring extended power cuts. Those who attempt to leave Tripoli are stopped by pro-Gadhafi forces stationed along the highways.
NATO has kept up its attack around Tripoli adding to the anxiety of residents who fear getting caught in the cross-fire.
“In Tripoli people are scared because of NATO bombings,” said Mr. Zahef, who has been urging his family to leave the city. People are fleeing by using back lanes and farm roads, he added.
On Friday, NATO bombs had struck nine military facilities, three radars, one radar guided anti-aircraft weapon system and one tank in the vicinity of Tripoli.
NATO bombs destroyed the home of Abdullah Senussi, Col. Gadhafi’s brother-in-law and intelligence chief. The International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for Mr. Senussi’s arrest on charges of committing war crimes.
NATO jets also struck near Zawiyah and Zlitan.