Rebel leaders said that over the weekend they had wrested control of the strategic coastal city of Zawiyah, which lies between Tripoli and the Tunisian border. Even as Gaddafi loyalists fought back in Zawiyah on Monday, the rebels claimed to have captured two nearby towns, putting within their reach the coastal road that has become the capital’s most important lifeline.
“If that road is cut off, then Tripoli is slowly going to be strangled to death,” said George Joffe, a Libya expert at Cambridge University. “This may be the beginning of a prolonged fight. . . . It’s not yet the killer blow.”
Gaddafi, the Arab world’s longest-ruling autocrat, has vowed to fight until the death. He and his loyalists have showed remarkable resiliency and ruthlessness in combating a rebel force that controls the eastern half of the country as well as the mountainous region to Tripoli’s southwest.
But his inner core of aides has shown signs of breaking apart, and on Monday morning one more crack emerged when his deputy security chief, Nasser al-Mabrouk Abdullah, arrived in Cairo with his family, according to officials in Egypt’s Interior Ministry. Abdullah’s apparent defection is the latest in a series that have eroded Gaddafi’s strength.
The reports from Libya buoyed hopes in the Obama administration, which has recognized the rebel government and has repeatedly called for Gaddafi to leave the country. State Department officials were particularly cheered by Abdullah’s apparent defection, though there had been no official contact with the Libyan security official or independent confirmation of his intentions.
“Senior members of [Gaddafi’s] government seem not to want to stand with him in Libya but are voting with their feet,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington.
Nuland also hailed rebel military successes in towns west of Tripoli and said pressure was mounting on Gaddafi loyalists, although the autocrat showed no signs of stepping down.
In an audio recording broadcast on state television Monday, Gaddafi denounced NATO, calling the alliance “colonizers” who support rebels, whom he disparaged as “rats.” Gaddafi called on his forces to “prepare for battle.” NATO has been carrying out airstrikes against his forces since March, obliterating hundreds of targets across the country.
Dialogue in Tunisia
The opposition victories of recent days came as leaders of the rebel Transitional National Council met for talks with Gaddafi’s representatives in Tunisia. It was the latest in a series of such meetings, though U.S. officials sought to play down expectations that a negotiated settlement might be imminent.