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In Libya, Gaddafi forces recapture strategic western town
The collapse of the rebel effort in Zawiyah marks a major setback for opposition hopes that the revolt against Gaddafi will take root around the country. It also appeared to deepen the divide between the rebel-held east and the rest of the country.
With the only major rebel-held town in western Libya back under government control, the rebels are now concentrated almost exclusively in the far east, apart from a pocket of territory in the center of the town of Misurata, 125 miles east of Tripoli.
There were indications that the opposition movement in Tripoli also has withered, a little over three weeks after the start of the uprising, when thousands of people took to the streets and set fire to buildings in an effort to topple Gaddafi.
Friday prayers have been the focus of protests every week since, but on this Friday there were reports of only one attempt by a small number of demonstrators to take to the streets, in the distant eastern Tripoli suburb of Tajura. But they were swiftly scattered by security forces firing tear gas, a witness told Reuters.
As has also become customary on Fridays, media handlers prevented journalists from leaving their hotel in Tripoli, making it impossible to report on possible protests. Those who did manage to sneak out were rounded up and returned to the hotel or detained by police.
A 21-year-old Tripoli resident who has taken part in demonstrations since the uprising began said she decided to stay home Friday. "Today no one went out to protest," she said in a telephone interview. Because past demonstrations have been quelled by live ammunition and tear gas, "the people I know are concerned and are at home."
In eastern Libya, fighting continued around Ras Lanuf, home to Libya's biggest oil refinery, with both sides claiming to control the strategic town. Kaim, the deputy foreign minister, told journalists that the government has seized Ras Lanuf from the rebels and promised to take journalists there Saturday to see for themselves.
But a spokesman for the rebel movement, Hamid al-Hasi, told the al-Arabiya television network that Ras Lanuf was back in rebel hands.
There were also reports of air and artillery strikes against Brega, farther east, as government forces sought to press their counteroffensive deeper toward Benghazi, the self-styled capital of the rebel-held east.
There, thousands of residents gathered in front of the city's courthouse for Friday prayers, where they sent a collective plea to the world for assistance to take on Gaddafi's better-equipped forces. Banners were strung between lampposts, written in both English and Arabic.
"No Fly Zone" read one.
"Help us become a democratic country," read another.
Correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan in Benghazi, Libya, and special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Ras Jdir, Tunisia, contributed to this report.