Muammar Gaddafi loyalists have swept into the opposition-held city closest to Tripoli, tightening security around the regime-held capital. To the east, rebel forces captured a key oil port as the country veered towards civil war.
The contrasting fortunes of the two warring sides suggest that the conflict in Libya could last for weeks and maybe months, with neither side mustering enough military power to decisively defeat the other. The government is fighting fiercely to maintain its hold in Tripoli and surrounding areas and the rebels are pushing their front westward from their eastern stronghold.
The assault on Zawiya, a city of some 200,000 people just 30 miles west of Tripoli, began with a surprise dawn attack by pro-Gaddafi forces firing mortar shells and machine guns. Witnesses said the shelling damaged government buildings and homes and the fighting sparked several fires, sending a cloud of heavy black smoke over the city.
Initially, the rebels retreated to positions deeper in the city before they launched a counter-offensive in which they regained some of the lost territory, according to three residents and activists. By mid-Saturday afternoon, the rebels had reoccupied central Martyrs’ Square while the pro-regime forces regrouped on the city’s fringes, sealing off the city’s entry and exit routes, the witnesses said.
“We will fight them on the streets and will never give up so long as Gaddafi is still in power,” said one of the rebels.
Pro-Gaddafi forces on foot and firing artillery, mortars and other heavy weapons launched a new attack on Zawiya from the south and west, two other witnesses said.
Gaddafi, who has led the country virtually unchecked for four decades, has unleashed a violent crackdown against those seeking to oust him, drawing international condemnation and sanctions.
Hundreds have been killed, perhaps more, putting pressure on the international community to do more to stop the crackdown on protests that began on February 15, inspired by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, its neighbours to the east and west respectively.
US president Barack Obama has insisted that Gaddafi must leave and said his administration was considering a full range of options, including the imposition of a “no-fly” zone over Libya.
So far, Gaddafi has had little success in taking back territory, with the entire eastern half of the country and some cities near the capital under rebel control. But the opposition forces have had limited success in marching on pro-Gaddafi areas, leading to a stand-off that could last for weeks and maybe months, with neither side mustering enough military power to decisively defeat the other.