Libyan rebels encircling Tripoli

REBELS battled for towns on either side of the besieged Libyan capital yesterday as the fight for Tripoli appeared to be moving towards its climax.

Fighting spilled across the border into Tunisia, where Libyan infiltrators clashed with Tunisian troops.

Security sources in Tunis said their forces had intercepted Libyan fighters in vehicles with weapons and fought them through the night in the desert. They reported several casualties.

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The six-month-old war in Libya came close to the frontier this week after rebels suddenly seized the coastal city of Zawiya just 30 miles west of Tripoli, surrounding the capital and severing its supply routes.

Rebels captured the main square in Zawiya after more than a week of heavy fighting. The town square was yesterday full of rebel trucks and troops.

Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi’s forces remain in the eastern part of the city, and rebels are battling to expel them and claim full control over Zawiya. A victory in Zawiya would be an important boost for the rebels as they try to tighten the noose on Gaddafi’s stronghold in Tripoli.

The regime appears to be increasingly isolated, and is scrambling to marshal all the forces available to it to hold back rebels on the western front.

Gaddafi’s forces west of Zawiya and near the Tunisian border have been effectively encircled and cut off from their own supply lines.

Tunisia has beefed up its army presence in the border area.

Residents of the southern Tunisian desert town of Douz said that helicopters were swooping overhead and troops had been summoned from nearby towns to subdue the Libyan infiltrators, who rode in vehicles without number plates.

The Tunisian security sources did not say whether the armed men were rebels or supporters of Gaddafi.

However, residents said they believed that the men were Gaddafi supporters.

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Officials also said a Tunisian army helicopter had crashed because of mechanical problems in the border area, killing the pilot and co-pilot.

He did not say whether or not the crash was linked to fighting with the Libyan infiltrators.

The siege of Tripoli and the prospect of a battle for the capital have added urgency to the question of Gaddafi’s fate. The leader has repeatedly vowed never to leave the country. Rebels say they will not stop fighting until he is gone.

Representatives of the two sides held talks early last week in a Tunisian resort, attended by a former French prime minister, but announced no breakthrough.

The severing of the road link between Tripoli and Tunisia makes further talks difficult.

It was reported in the United States on Friday that Gaddafi was making preparations to leave Libya with his family for possible exile in Tunisia, but that it was unclear if he would follow through. The information was said to have come from US officials, who cited intelligence reports.

Libya’s deputy foreign minister, Khaled Kaim, reiterated the government stance that Gaddafi would not leave the country, but he did say that Libya was in favour of any negotiations to end the fighting. He said: “But the United States and other key players have to give their blessing to these negotiations.”

A Tunisian official source said Libya’s top oil official, Omran Abukraa, had arrived in Tunisia after deciding not to return to Tripoli from a trip to Italy. If confirmed, then it would be the third apparent defection of a senior Gaddafi associate in the past week.

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A senior security official arrived in Rome last Monday and rebels said on Friday that Gaddafi’s estranged former deputy Abdel Salam Jalloud had joined their side.

Mortar and rocket rounds crashed into the centre of Zawiya yesterday. Shells struck the central hospital around dawn, blasting holes in the walls.

In the central square, residents were burning and stamping on a green Gaddafi flag. “Gaddafi is finished. Civilians are starting to come back to the cities. Libya is finally free,” said one, who gave his name as Abu Khaled.

In a nearby alley, residents had gathered to stare at the bodies of two Gaddafi soldiers lying in the street. Gunfire and explosions could be heard in the distance.

Rebels said the main Gaddafi force had retreated about six miles east to the town of Jaddayim and was shelling Zawiya from there.

East of the capital, where fighting has been bloodier and rebel advances far slower, opposition forces fought street battles in the city of Zlitan, but suffered heavy casualties. A spokesman said 32 rebel fighters had been killed and 150 wounded.

Gaddafi’s spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, said late on Friday that the government’s military held the upper hand in both Zawiya and Zlitan.

The sudden imposition of a siege around Tripoli has trapped its residents behind the front line and cut it off from fuel and food.

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The International Organisation for Migration said on Friday it would organise a rescue operation to evacuate thousands of foreign workers, probably by sea.

With rebels pushing on the ground, Nato has pressed on with its campaign from the air and its warplanes pounded targets in the capital on Friday night.

Gaddafi’s government has blamed the alliance’s bombings for scores of civilian deaths and said 27 people were killed in the most recent raids on Tripoli.

Nato accuses Gaddafi’s forces of housing military assets near civilians, using them as a human shield. Libyan officials yesterday took journalists to a residential district where a compound of several large buildings had been blasted to pieces.

Neighbours said the compound had belonged to Abdullah al-Senussi, Gaddafi’s brother-in-law and head of intelligence. A government official said Senussi was not there at the time.