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Gaddafi loyalists besiege Zawiyah; civilian casualties reported

By Steve Hendrix, Anthony Faiola and William Branigin
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.

"We do expect the international community to impose a no-fly zone over Libya," he said. He said the opposition has been in "direct contact" with several foreign governments and is working to convene a major conference on Libya on March 11.

Asked about concerns in Washington regarding whom the administration would be dealing with, Ghoga said, "They have a choice to send a delegation to Libya like France and Italy have done." But he praised the Obama administration for calling the Gaddafi government "illegitimate."

In Washington, the White House said President Obama spoke Tuesday with British Prime Minister David Cameron about the situation in Libya and discussed the possibility of a no-fly zone, among other options.

The two "agreed that the common objective in Libya must be an immediate end to brutality and violence; the departure of [Gaddafi] from power as quickly as possible; and a transition that meets the Libyan peoples' aspirations for freedom, dignity and a representative government," the White House said in a statement. It said Obama and Cameron "agreed to press forward with planning, including at NATO, on the full spectrum of possible responses, including surveillance, humanitarian assistance, enforcement of the arms embargo, and a no fly zone."

In Geneva, the U.N. refugee agency expressed alarm Tuesday at "increasing accounts of violence and discrimination in Libya against sub-Saharan Africans," and it called for greater international assistance in providing long-haul flights to repatriate thousands of stranded Bangladeshis.

A spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told reporters that Africans are being targeted in both the eastern and western parts of the country. They are facing reprisals from rebels at least in part because Gaddafi has imported fighters from sub-Saharan Africa to bolster his forces and help him stay in power.

At the Egyptian border, Sudanese refugees from eastern Libya told a UNHCR team that armed Libyans were forcing sub-Saharan Africans to leave the country and that in one case a 12-year-old Sudanese girl was raped. Chadians who have fled Benghazi, Baida and Brega in recent days gave similar accounts, the UNHCR said.

The agency said a Bangladeshi man died over the weekend at the Egyptian border after a fight over food distribution and that many of the 3,500 Bangladeshis there are sleeping outside in bitter cold because available shelter is filled.

Refugee arrivals at the Tunisian border have dropped considerably because of intensified fighting in western Libya, where people trying to flee face shakedowns at numerous military roadblocks. More than 212,000 people have fled the violence in Libya so far, turning up at the borders with Tunisia, Egypt and Niger, the UNHCR said.

The United Nations said Monday that it expects the number of people fleeing the fighting in Libya to double over the next three months. In all, as many as 1 million Libyans and migrant workers will require assistance, the United Nations said in issuing an appeal for $160 million to cover the costs.

A summary of the appeal said that although "the clearest humanitarian needs" stem from the outflow of people fleeing the crisis, "there are likely to be many more migrants within Libya who want to leave" but have been unable to do so.

U.N. officials cautioned that the estimate is preliminary and that they do not have a complete picture of the extent of need in Libya, particularly in government-controlled Tripoli and the conflict zone in the west. Over the weekend, Libyan Foreign Minister Musa Kusa acceded to a request by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to send an assessment team to Tripoli to determine the extend of Libya's humanitarian needs. But as of Monday, the U.N. team had not been given the visas and guarantees of unhindered access it needs to carry out its work.

Ban has named Abdul-Illah Khatib, a former Jordanian foreign minister, as a special U.N. envoy to Libya. Khatib has been directed to consult with Libyan authorities and others in the region "on the immediate humanitarian situation as well as the wider dimensions of the crisis."

Faiola reported from Tunis. Branigin reported from Washington. Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations and special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Tunis contributed to this report.

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