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Rebel-held Misurata under siege as rebels, Gaddafi forces battle in eastern and western Libya

By Steve Hendrix, Liz Sly and Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 10, 2011; 6:53 AM

BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Pro-government forces intensified their siege around the rebel-held town of Misurata Thursday, one resident said, cutting off the delivery of food and supplies, preventing farmers from going to their fields, and abducting people on the city's outskirts.

"People are being kidnapped. . .and taken to Sirte and other places, and from there to Tripoli, where they are tortured and have to confess to crimes they did not commit," said Saleh Abed el-Aziz, an architect, who was interviewed by phone.

Abed el-Aziz said morale in Misurata--a key port between Tripoli and Sirte, home town of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi--is high despite the siege.

The weeks-old civil war was also being waged on at least two other fronts, with rebel forces claiming Wednesday to have broken through a three-day standoff with government fighters in the town of Bin Jawwad but acknowledging another day of heavy casualties in the besieged western city of Zawiyah.

In Zawiyah Thursday, "there was no shelling and it was quiet," said one resident, who had fled to Tripoli, the capital, 27 miles to the east, but was able to make contact with people who remained in the area.

Libyan state television announced late Wednesday that government forces had taken control of the city, but those assertions could not be independently verified. Shortly before midnight, the government bused journalists to a floodlit stadium that was apparently on the outskirts of the city. The journalists were greeted by fireworks and a cheering crowd of about 300 people who chanted "God is great" and waved pictures of Gaddafi.

Members of the crowd said they were celebrating the defeat of "troublemakers" but were vague about the details of the fighting or how many people had died.

A soldier, Ayman Kikly, 29, said the rebels fought with antiaircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenades and homemade bombs, but "the citizens who live here stood with the army, and they were outnumbered."

There was no evidence in the stadium of the fierce fighting that has occurred in Zawiyah over the last six days. And the resident who was interviewed by phone on Thursday described the situation as still fluid, with skirmishes between rebel and government forces.

On Wednesday "it was a cat and mouse game and no side could claim effective control over the city," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared retribution. Government forces heavily shelled the main square, using tank and mortar fire, machine guns and artillery.

Medical workers compiling a list of the dead say the toll from the fighting in Zawiyah on Tuesday could be as high as 50, a resident said. No death toll was available for Wednesday.

Residents who were interviewed by satellite phone said communication within the city is very difficult. All entrances to the city have been closed, Mohammed said, and it is impossible to bring in food or medicine.

Rebels soldier on

In Bin Jawwad on Wednesday, ground fighting resumed in an area that has been pounded by government airstrikes for three days. After losing the central coastal town in a bruising artillery battle Sunday, rebel forces made their first concerted effort to regain ground.

A witness close to the front said the anti-government fighters had managed to enter Bin Jawwad amid heavy fighting. When the news reached the opposition's provisional capital of Benghazi, streets erupted in cheers, honking and celebratory gunfire.

Taking Bin Jawwad, the town where Gaddafi loyalists have made a fierce stand and stalled the rebel march toward Tripoli, would be a welcome boost to the exhausted revolutionaries. Televised scenes of violent clashes in recent days have eroded the optimism many felt last week when rebel fighters racked up a string of victories along the coast.

"We've gone from a revolution to a war," said Salwa Bugaighis, a lawyer in Benghazi.

Meanwhile, rebel leaders in Benghazi said government planes had bombed fuel silos and an oil pipeline near Ras Lanuf. The strike raised fears that Gaddafi had turned his weapons on petroleum assets in opposition-controlled territory, something the rebel government has dreaded.

"What we worried about has started to happen today," said Abdul Hafidh Ghoga, spokesman for the temporary governing council in Benghazi. "This could lead to a huge environmental crisis, and one that could also cause global aftershocks in the oil industry."

Also Wednesday, a senior Libyan official flew to Cairo, possibly to deliver a message from Gaddafi to Egypt's interim military government, wire services reported.

An Egyptian army official told the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity that Maj. Gen Abdul-Rahman bin Ali al-Saiid al-Zawi, the head of Libya's logistics and supply authority, had arrived from Tripoli and was asking to meet Egypt's military rulers.

Gap within rebel council

The rebels' ruling council insisted for a second day that there were no negotiations with the regime in Tripoli. On Tuesday, a seeming division had emerged in the 32-member council, with leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil appearing to offer Gaddafi a three-day deadline to leave Libya in exchange for immunity. Other members of the council declared that such a deal was unacceptable.

Opposition leaders said the gap has more to do with confusion than any true divergence in strategy. But it illustrates the different styles of the council's two most prominent leaders.

Abdel Jalil is one of at least three former members of Gaddafi's government to join the rebel ruling council. The former justice minister is known as an avuncular and soft-spoken man who quit the cabinet in the early days of the uprising and immediately joined the rebels in Benghazi.

"He is the one person everyone in Libya can agree on," said Yosef Fanoush, an engineering student who was arrested early in the protests. "There may be more professional leaders and leaders with more expertise, but he is trusted by everybody."

Ghoga, the council's spokesman, is a human rights lawyer who used to lead the national lawyers union. He has represented political prisoners and has previously been arrested by the regime.

The two men have settled on a division of labor that makes Abdel Jalil the titular head of the council and Ghoga its most frequent public face.

"They have a very cordial relationship," said Mustafa Gheriani, a media adviser to the council. "Right now, they are united in one thing, stopping this madman who is killing his own people."

Sly reported from Tripoli, Bahrampour reported from Tunis. Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Tunis and staff writer Richard Leiby in Cairo also contributed to this report.

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