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Libya rebels gird for fight in city near capital

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By MAGGIE MICHAEL
The Associated Press
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 4:16 PM

ZAWIYA, Libya -- Hundreds of armed anti-government forces backed by military defectors who control the city closest to the capital Tripoli prepared Sunday to repel an expected offensive by forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi surrounding Zawiya.

Two prominent U.S. Senators said Washington should recognize and arm a provisional government in rebel-held areas of eastern Libya and impose a no-fly zone over the area - enforced by U.S. warplanes - to stop attacks by the regime. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton echoed President Barack Obama's demand for Gadhafi to relinquish power.

"We want him to leave," she told reporters traveling with her Sunday to a U.N. meeting on Libya planned for Monday. "We want him to end his regime and call off the mercenaries and forces loyal to him. How he manages that is up to him."

Gadhafi's son, Seif al-Islam, claimed again that the country was calm and denied the regime used force or airstrikes against its own people. But human rights groups and European officials have put the death toll since unrest began in Libya nearly two weeks ago at hundreds, or perhaps thousands, though it has been virtually impossible to verify the numbers.

There were no reports of violence or clashes on Sunday.

Gadhafi has launched by far the bloodiest crackdown in a wave of anti-regime uprisings sweeping the Arab world. The United States, Britain and the U.N. Security Council all imposed sanctions on Libya over the weekend. And President Barack Obama said it is time for Gadhafi to go.

The regime, eager to show foreign reporters that the country is calm and under their control, took visiting journalists to Zawiya, 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli on Sunday. However, the tour confirmed the anti-government rebels are in control of the center of the city of 200,000. They have army tanks and anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickup trucks deployed.

On the outskirts of the city, they are surrounded by pro-Gadhafi forces, also backed by tanks and anti-aircraft guns.

There were at least six checkpoints controlled by troops loyal to Gadhafi on the road from Tripoli to Zawiya. Each checkpoint was reinforced by at least one tank, and the troops concealed their faces with scarves.

"To us, Gadhafi is the Dracula of Libya," said Wael al-Oraibi, an army officer at Zawiya who joined the rebels. He said his decision to defect was prompted in large part by the Libyan leader's use of mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa against the people of Zawiya.

A key city close to an oil port and refineries, Zawiya is the nearest population center to Tripoli to fall into the opposition hands. Police stations and government offices inside the city have been torched and anti-Gadhafi graffiti was everywhere. Many buildings are pockmarked by bullets.

The mood in the city was generally upbeat, but the anticipation of a renewed attempt to retake the city was causing some anxiety among the rebels.


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