Battles reported in Tripoli after Libyan rebels seize Zawiyah

ZAWIYAH, Libya —Fierce gunfights in Tripoli died down early Sunday morning as rebels gained control of Souk al-Jumaa in the eastern part of the capital and blocked roads to stop forces loyal to Moammar Gaddafi, dissidents reached by phone in Tripoli said.

Airstrikes could be heard throughout the city, said one rebel, who goes by the nickname Tony for fear for his safety. He said he was headed toward Zawiyah to coordinate with rebel fighters and help them storm the city.

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The Washington Post's Thomas Erdbrink reports from Zawiyah where the Libyan rebels took the key city of Zawiyah on Saturday, and are pushing toward the capital of Tripoli. (Aug. 20)

The Washington Post's Thomas Erdbrink reports from Zawiyah where the Libyan rebels took the key city of Zawiyah on Saturday, and are pushing toward the capital of Tripoli. (Aug. 20)

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“I think [Gaddafi] lost most of the city,” he said. “We have information that they are planning an attack on us soon.”

Gaddafi forces still controlled the seafront and the eastern gate into the city. Reporters staying at the Rixos hotel in Tripoli said the capital was quiet Sunday morning and that the hotel staff had not shown up for work.

Anti-Gaddafi rebels seized control of the key western city of Zawiyah on Saturday, and witnesses reported early Sunday that battles had erupted in several neighborhoods of the Libyan capital.

The ragtag rebel army’s advances set off a wave of speculation that Gaddafi’s rule was crumbling, but a government spokesman said the city remained under government control.

Dissidents reached by phone in Tripoli said fighting in the city’s eastern opposition strongholds of Tajura and al-Juma began Saturday night just after the last prayers of the day.

“We’re not going to stop tonight,” Tony said. Heavy gunfire rang out around him as he hid in a water tank with a Kalashnikov rifle in one hand and his cellphone in the other. “Tonight we will finish this.”

The rebels reportedly were also trying to take control of a domestic airport just outside the capital. Their fighters had pushed many of Gaddafi’s forces into the center of the city, and they were being bombarded by rocket-propelled grenades and antiaircraft fire, dissidents said. Both sides had heavy casualties, they said, but it was not possible to confirm the reports.

Dissidents said they were waiting for rebels from the east, west and south to storm the city, supply them with weapons and finish the fight for the capital.

“The rebels are waiting, and we are ready to take the city,” said Capt. Hussein al-Zalgy, a policeman who had defected. He said the opposition needed arms and fighters to take the eastern gate, where he estimated 40 percent of Gaddafi’s forces were stationed.

Gaddafi forces were blocking entrances into the city Sunday morning, al-Zalgy said, adding that “if the fighters can enter the city from three sides, we will find a way” to take Tripoli.

On Sunday morning, Gaddafi spoke on state television in what seemed to be a live address by phone. Referring to himself as the father of Libya, he called the rebels “traitors” and the fighting a “tragedy during Ramadan,” the Muslim holy month.

“Is this democracy? I think not,” he said. Before he hung up, Gaddafi urged his supporters to “go forward.” He criticized NATO and Persian Gulf Arab countries for destroying Libya, and he accused the French of intervening for “Libyan oil.”

“I can’t understand how Libya is now in this state. . . . You need to find the people behind this state . . . behind this tragedy,” Gaddafi said, making a point to note the time and date to prove he was speaking live.

Opposition figures speculated that Gaddafi had not made his statement on television because he was not in Tripoli.

Moussa Ibrahim, the Libyan government spokesman, said at a news conference broadcast on state television that the situation in Tripoli was under control. He said those taking part in the revolt numbered only a few dozen, and he showed photos of people raising the green Libyan flag.

In Zawiyah, the bodies of pro-Gaddafi fighters could be seen on the ground in the central Martyr’s Square as residents of the city cautiously ventured out to celebrate. NATO planes could be heard circling overheard, as young men took cellphone photos of the damage.

“Now it’s impossible for Gaddafi to return,” said Mohammad Abbas Abdulrazaq, 18. “Now that all the rebels have joined up, Gaddafi’s only hope is to run.”

The bodies of two men, partly covered by blankets, lay on the ground in the square. “These are mercenaries Gaddafi has hired to kill us,” Abdulrazaq said.

The rebels have accused Gaddafi of hiring mercenaries from sub-Saharan African nations to help put down the uprising, but it was unclear whether the two men were among those fighters.

News reports early Saturday said the rebels had also seized the town of Brega, in eastern Libya. But a rebel military spokesman, Col. Ahmed Bani, told the Associated Press that his fighters lost the industrial section of the key oil port to government forces later in the day.

The rebel victories have triggered an exodus from the Libyan capital in recent days. On Friday, long columns of vehicles arrived at the rebel-controlled checkpoint in Bir Ayad, 60 miles from Tripoli, with children flashing victory signs and fathers happily honking the horns of their cars.

The families, hundreds of them, had slipped out of the capital, using back alleys and country roads to avoid checkpoints controlled by Gaddafi’s forces.

The International Organization for Migration issued a plea for help as it started preparing to airlift thousands of foreigners out of the capital — mostly Egyptian guest workers, but also aid workers and journalists.

The refugees leaving the city by car are joining thousands of others who traded Gaddafi-controlled areas for the rebel stronghold of the Nafusa Mountains. Government intimidation, food shortages and fear of NATO bombings have prompted them to leave, they say, adding that the majority of people in the capital are waiting for the rebels to enter the city.

Those leaving are seen as traitors by Gaddafi loyalists. “The soldiers at the checkpoints called us rats and accused us of deserting to the rebels,” said Mabrouk Mohammad, 52. The soldiers had ordered him to turn around, he said, to return to a capital where he had spent months deliberating whether to stay or go.

“Food is getting very expensive, banks and many government offices are mostly closed, and we don’t know what this mad dog will do once he is cornered,” he said. His two wives and seven children barely fit in his van, which was stuffed with blankets and suitcases.

Mohammad made the decision to take the risk and skip town after soldiers searched his house Thursday evening, after protests in his neighborhood. So when the soldiers at the checkpoint told him to return to Tripoli, he backed up, bypassed them via a side alley, and steered his way into rebel-held territory.

“Now we are free,” Mohammad said. “But Tripoli is not.”

Fadel reported from Cairo. Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

 
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