Gaddafi loyalists besiege Zawiyah; civilian casualties reported

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, people in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 4:00 PM

BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Troops loyal to Moammar Gaddafi besieged the rebel-held city of Zawiyah for a fifth day Tuesday, as government forces renewed assaults on several fronts to try to reclaim ground lost since the uprising against the longtime Libyan leader began last month.

Rebel officials in Zawiyah, 27 miles west of Tripoli, said dozens of people have been killed and hundreds wounded, including women and children. On Monday, eyewitnesses said loyalist troops backed by 40 tanks rolled into the city. After seven hours of lethal urban warfare, rebels said they managed to repulse the assault, although at a heavy cost in lives.

On Tuesday, they said the city, suffering from severe shortages of medicines and food, was coming under heavy mortar fire.

"They are not yet rolling in with tanks like yesterday, but they are shelling us from a distance of three to four kilometers," said Mohamed Magid, an opposition spokesman in Zawiyah. Electricity, telephone and Internet service in the city have been cut, he said.

"They are hitting civilian buildings; there are civilian casualties," Magid said, sounding desperate as he spoke on a satellite phone. "We need help."

In the key oil terminal of Ras Lanuf, 412 miles east of Tripoli, Gaddafi loyalists were engaged in fierce fighting with rebels who had hoped to march on Sirte, Gaddafi's hometown and a strategically vital city still under tight government control. Rebel officials said Ras Lanuf was coming under heavy bombing as Gaddafi's aircraft targeted the town's water reservoir, among other installations. But as of late Tuesday, rebel officials said they still controlled Ras Lanuf.

A medical doctor there told the Arabic television network al-Jazeera that hospitals Tuesday received more than 20 wounded people, most with serious injuries.

An eastern front, meanwhile, appeared to be developing in the no-man's land between Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawwad, a town 37 miles to the west that the rebels lost to the loyalists late Sunday. Gaddafi's troops were reported to be digging trenches and setting up heavy artillery in an effort to thwart any attempt by the rebels to move farther west.

In the capital, Tripoli, residents reached by phone said the tense quiet of the last few days largely persisted, although the sound of machine gun fire occasionally echoed around the city. Gaddafi loyalists claimed the shooting was part of celebrations.

After widespread reports that Gaddafi had offered, through an third party, to give up power if he were allowed to leave the country, opposition leaders said at a news conference Tuesday that no such offer had been made.

"In reality, there is no such proposal," said Abdul Hafidh Ghoga, a spokesman for the opposition's governing council in Benghazi, the rebels' provisional capital. "We have not been contacted. There is no emissary."

Ghoga called again for foreign powers to impose a "no-fly zone" over Libya and effectively ground Gaddafi's air force.

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