By Leila Fadel , Anthony Faiola and Samuel Sockol
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 6, 2011; A01
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.
"The situation in Zawiyah is quiet and peaceful right now," Gaddafi's deputy foreign minister, Khaled Qaid, told a group of foreign reporters in Tripoli on Saturday. "We hope by tomorrow morning life will be back to normal."
But rebels in Zawiyah insisted they were not yet beaten. "The fight here is going to be symbolically important to the struggle," said Mohamed Magid, an opposition spokesman. "If Gaddafi wins, he will have the upper hand, but we will not allow that to happen."
In Tripoli, a tense quiet appeared to grip the capital one day after government troops had fired tear gas and live ammunition at demonstrators. Two residents reached in the city's restive suburbs who have openly criticized Gaddafi before declined Saturday to talk to a foreign journalist, insisting that their phones were being monitored by the government. A third resident who asked that her name be withheld said her family "was terrified" after a government crackdown on the capital in which security agents have reportedly sought and detained suspected government opponents.
"We are afraid to leave the house," she said, adding that there was a mixture of "hope and fear in the air." She said her family members had gathered "household weapons," including knives and scrap metal, in their living room to defend themselves should Gaddafi's loyalists come for them. "We have never gone through anything like this in our lives."
In the east, opposition forces displayed renewed bravado on the back of their ground success at Ras Lanuf, an oil refinery town 410 miles east of Tripoli, late Friday. Rebel forces fortified their hold on the town and opened fire on a loyalist helicopter Saturday, according to reports. They said they expected to take the capital "within days."
Yet the opposition centered in Libya's second-largest city, Benghazi, backed away from earlier calls for international airstrikes to weaken Gaddafi.
"The revolutionaries have no need of airstrikes," said Hafida Gogha, spokesman for the Libyan National Council representing rebel-held cities.
Libyan rebels said they were advancing on Sirte, Gaddafi's home town and his second-most important stronghold.
"They are surrounding Sirte now," Khaled el-Sayeh, a coordinator between the opposition's military forces and its interim ruling council, told Bloomberg News. "We have sufficient forces to liberate Sirte, just like we had when we liberated Ras Lanuf."
In Washington, the Obama administration stepped up efforts to evacuate stranded foreigners and provide humanitarian relief.
The State Department announced $3 million in additional aid for the International Organization for Migration, which is overseeing operations to return thousands of Egyptian workers and others from Africa and Asia who fled Libya and are at the border with Tunisia.
Two U.S. Marine aircraft departed Djerba, Tunisia, for Cairo on Saturday with a total of 132 Egyptians. Two Air Force C-130 aircraft were en route to the border region to evacuate additional stranded workers, State Department officials said.
Faiola and Sockol reported from Tunis. Staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington and special correspondent Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.