Stalemate in Libyan siege

Map of Libya
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 6, 2011

BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Government forces carried out a bloody siege of Zawiyah on Saturday, bombarding the rebel-held western city with mortar fire and deploying tanks in the streets and snipers on rooftops.

But even as they pressed their counterattack against a resistance that vowed to fight on, emboldened opposition forces in the east backed away from calls for international airstrikes and pledged to take the battle against Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi to his stronghold in the capital, Tripoli, on their own.

The day's events suggested the bid to oust Gaddafi was developing into precisely what Western observers have feared: a potentially protracted civil war.

The violence in Zawiyah, a city vital to Libya's oil industry and where witnesses said dozens had been killed and hundreds wounded Saturday, offered a chilling glimpse into what could become an inconclusive and bruising conflict with an ever-mounting death toll.

By late Saturday, the government and the opposition 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.

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."

Tanks rolled in again about six hours later. Rebels said they succeeded in largely repelling the second wave using aging equipment seized from military depots. But at least one hospital in Zawiyah appeared to fall into the hands of the government. A man, reached by phone, described himself as a doctor there and called himself a Gaddafi loyalist. The government in Tripoli said that virtually all of the city was under its control.

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