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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Western Libya rebels strike north towards coast

Jon Wilson
Western Libya rebels strike north towards coast \n (Reuters)\n

Western Libya rebels strike north towards coast

Western Libya rebels strike north towards coastReuters – An unexploded military ordnance lies on the road near the village of Shal Ghouda in western Libya, August …
SHALGHOUDA, Libya (Reuters) – Libyan rebels said they had captured part of the oil town of Brega Thursday while their forces in the west pushed toward Zawiyah, trying to get within striking distance of Muammar Gaddafi's capital.
Gaddafi is clinging to power despite a near five-month NATO air campaign, tightening economic sanctions, and a lengthening war with rebels seeking to end his 41-year rule.
The rebels have seized large swathes of the North African state, but are deeply divided and have yet to march on Tripoli.
Thursday, they reached the village of Bir Shuaib, some 25 km (15 miles) from Zawiyah, which has unsuccessfully risen up against Gaddafi twice this year. It lies less than 50 km west of Tripoli, on the main road to Tunisia, which has been a lifeline for Libya but has begun to crack down on rampant smuggling.
"We've gone past Nasr village and right now we're about 25 km from Zawiyah," said Faris, a rebel fighter. Rebels prevented reporters from reaching the front to see for themselves.
Rebels in the western mountains do not operate as a single force, as each town has its own command. But when they join forces for major operations they can muster a few thousand men.
Their force is poorly trained and short of heavy weaponry -- despite a French arms drop earlier this year -- and most analysts do not think they are capable of capturing Tripoli.
On the eastern front near Brega, one rebel spokesman said the opposition had captured the residential districts of the oil town but Gaddafi's forces still hold western parts of the town where the oil facilities are located.
The residential area where the fighting was taking place is about 15 km east of the oil terminal and sea port.
"It is liberated. It is under our control now," spokesman Mossa Mahmoud al-Mograbi said of the eastern part of the town.
It was not immediately possible for a Reuters correspondent to verify the capture of Brega and rebels have repeatedly claimed to have seized towns in the past, only to be quickly repelled by Gaddafi's forces.
In an effort to pile economic and military pressure on Gaddafi, more countries are set to announce next week that they will free frozen assets for the rebels, a British official said.
The senior official said steps taken by the international community meant Gaddafi and his supporters were nearing a "tipping point" when they would be forced from power.
"While it's hard to predict when this will end, it's easy to see the pressure is building on Gaddafi and it is only a matter of time before he's forced to leave power," the official said.
Britain is playing a leading role in NATO air strikes against Gaddafi's forces, which have weakened his armory but failed to allow the rebels deliver a knockout blow.
Tightening the economic noose around Gaddafi, Tunisia said Thursday its troops were patrolling fuel stations to curb the flow of smuggled gasoline into neighboring Libya.
International sanctions and the effects of Libya's civil war have disrupted normal supplies of fuel to parts of the country under Gaddafi's control, but huge volumes of gasoline are instead being smuggled across the Libyan-Tunisian border.
"The armed forces are now conducting checks at fuel stations in the south of Tunisia ... so that neither Tunisians nor Libyans can fill up with large quantities," Tunisian defense ministry official Mokhtar Ben Nasr told a news conference.
"These checks are aimed at preventing the smuggling of diesel and gasoline to Libya."
The western battle is one of three widely separated rebel fronts against Gaddafi forces. In the east around the ports of Misrata and Brega, fighting has been bogged down in recent weeks while the western rebels have advanced.
The two sides have been battling for months over Brega, 750 km east of Tripoli. The rebels see securing the town as a tipping point in the nearly six-month-old war and hope to resume oil exports from there as quickly as possible.
In the west, doctor Nuri Al-Fasi said one fighter had been killed and four wounded Thursday in the rebel push.
At a nearby field hospital, he looked over a rebel who had been shot in the stomach in the fighting in Nasr.
"This is very serious. I don't think he will make it," said al-Fasi, shaking his head.
Dozens of pick-up trucks packed with rebels drove to a staging post a few kilometers behind the front-line.
From rebel-held Misrata, east of Tripoli, rebels pushed to break through a partial encirclement by Gaddafi forces, striking south in the direction of Tawurgha.
Medical sources said three rebels were killed and 42 others were wounded in their push toward Tawurgha, south of Misrata.
One rebel said the offensive was led in coordination with NATO to protect Misrata from missile attacks. He said NATO asked rebels Wednesday to paint their vehicles in yellow and red.
The offensive comes days after Gaddafi's government accused NATO of killing 85 civilians, including women and children, in an air strike near Zlitan, west of rebel-held Misrata.
Dozens of Libyans protested outside the Hungarian embassy in Tripoli, which has become an unofficial contact point for European nations and the United States, against NATO airstrikes.
Rights group Amnesty International also called on NATO in a statement to "thoroughly investigate" allegations of civilian deaths in the strikes on the village of Majar, close to the front-line at Zlitan. NATO said it hit a military target.
(Additional reporting by Robert Birsel in Benghazi, Leon Malherbe in Tripoli, Tarek Amara in Tunis, Souhail Karam in Rabat and Joseph Nasr in Berlin; Writing by Lin Noueihed, Editing by Louise Ireland)
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