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Violence in Libya sows fears of long civil war; gunfire erupts in Tripoli

Thousands of supporters of Moammar Gaddafi poured into the streets of Tripoli on Sunday, waving flags and firing their guns. This comes as Libyan warplanes launched air strikes and heavy battles with a rebel force advancing towards the capital. (March 6)
Map of Libya

It was unclear whether the fighters, who have been quickly trained and armed and usually ride to battle in private cars and trucks, would attempt a move back toward Sirte Sunday. In the early afternoon, rebels returning to Ras Lanuf for ammunition reported that fighting had resumed around Binjiwad. Rebel reinforcements began to arrive from the east, including multiple pickups with mounted with anti-aircraft guns. There were unconfirmed reports that rebels had managed to encircle the town after heavy fighting.

In Zawiyah, a city vital to Libya's oil industry and where witnesses said dozens had been killed and hundreds wounded in a bloody siege on Saturday, eyewitness reports said government forces were again bombarding the city on Sunday. The Internet, electricity and phone lines appeared to be down. Late Saturday, the government and the opposition had both claimed control of Zawiyah. Though accounts were impossible to verify, witnesses described a "massacre" in the worst of a two-day siege in which shells rained on neighborhoods and bullet-ridden bodies of fighters were strewn in the streets of the city, 27 miles west of Tripoli.

To the east of Tripoli, rebel-held Misurata, Libya's third largest city, was coming under heavy attack, being shelled by the regime and with tanks rolling into the city, a rebel activist in the city told the Al-Jazeera network.

In Tripoli, sustained rounds of gunfire erupted just before 6 a.m., along with the sound of heavy artillery, according to a resident reached by phone and other news reports. Journalists' access to the city has been strictly limited by the government, which has invited a group of reporters from foreign news organizations that does not include the Post.

Government officials in the capital denied fighting had broken out and reports said Gaddafi loyalists were rallying in parts of the city to celebrate a string of fresh victories. Ecstatic Gaddafi supporters waving the green national flag of the regime and holding banners bearing his image could be seen on state TV riding through the city with guns. Some reports indicated thousands of loyalists had taken to the streets, apparently prompted by government announcements of strategic advances, though it remained unclear what prompted such a move so early in the morning.

Mussa Ibrahim, Gaddafi's spokesman, told Reuters: "I assure you, I assure you, I assure you, I assure you, there is no fighting going on in Tripoli. Everything is safe. Tripoli is 100 percent under control. What you are hearing is celebratory fireworks. People are in the streets, dancing in the square."

Yet the ferocity of the campaign in Zawiyah illustrated the challenge ahead for government forces as they seek to decisively win back territory lost since the uprising against Gaddafi began Feb. 17.

After striking the city Friday, Gaddafi loyalists reportedly led by his son Khamis Gaddafi escalated their attack Saturday. At 7 a.m. local time, tanks rolled into the city accompanied by heavy shelling and machine-gun assaults, with witnesses reporting great plumes of black smoke billowing from various neighborhoods. Yet within three hours, the rebels succeeded, witnesses said, in driving Gaddafi's forces out of the city's center after blowing up two tanks with hand-held rocket-propelled grenades.

Loyalist snipers took positions on rooftops, firing on the central square before pulling back to the city's perimeter. The shelling of the city, however, continued. Witnesses said houses and buildings were severely damaged.

Rebels claimed to be inflicting heavy damage on their better-armed opponents, saying dozens of Gaddafi's fighters had been killed. Still others were captured, they said, and were being held as prisoners of war.

"It is a massacre. They are striking civilians, they are attacking us from all directions," Mohammed Ahmad, a 31-year-old doctor, said by phone during one of the attacks. Explosions and whizzing bullets could be heard around him as he spoke. "People are running around shouting, 'God is great!' You can hear the shooting everywhere. This is madness. Why is the international community not interfering?"

Abu Ala, a Zawiyah resident in his 50s who declined to give his full name, said he had seen loyalist forces execute two rebels with their hands tied behind their backs Saturday morning. "Today, I saw a heinous crime," he said. "It was opposite my house, and it was shocking."

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