Libyan rebels push towards Az Zawiyah

Fighting intensifies in western Libya as hundreds of opposition fighters capture the strategic town of Bir Ghanem.


    Libyan opposition fighters have captured a strategic town in western Libya, as they intensify a push towards the coastal city of Az Zawiyah.

    Hundreds of rebels fought Muammar Gaddafi's forces in the battle for Bir Ghanem, 85km from the capital, Tripoli, on Saturday.

    "Bir Ghanem is fully under revolutionary control. They are now combing the area for Gaddafi loyalists and landmines," Abdulrahman, a rebel spokesman said by telephone from Zlitan.

    Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr said at least 14 opposition fighters were killed and 17 were wounded in the battle which lasted only a few hours.

    "It was really fierce fighting," she said. "Since early morning we heard heavy exchange of rocket fire from both sides."

    The offensive was part of the rebels' attempt to get closer to Tripoli. The rebels said earlier this week they hoped to reach the capital before the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

    "The most important thing for them now is to reach Az Zawiyah," our correspondent said.

    "They know that they can get support from inside that city, that rebels there are ready to rise up against the Gaddafi regime but they need help from outside."

    Az Zawiyah was the scene of a major uprising by protesters early on in the conflict, which began in February. The protesters took over the city and drove out Gaddafi's supporters, but were then brutally crushed in a long, bloody siege.

    In their push towards Az Zawiyah, fighters have started an offensive against government troops near Surman in the Western Mountain area.

    Libyan state television reported that NATO air strikes hit civilian and military targets in Tripoli early on Sunday morning.

    Planes could be heard overhead following a series of blasts from 2am local time.

    Town under siege

    Elsewhere in the west, residents of al-Qusbat, a small town 100km from Tripoli, were said to be under siege.

    A representative from al-Qusbat's rebel military committee told the AFP news agency that the town was surrounded by Gaddafi's forces and fears were growing of an imminent bloodbath.

    "All roads going to al-Qusbat are blocked by Gaddafi's forces. They cut electricity and communications since yesterday," Khamis Nuri el-Kasseh said from Benghazi after contacting the town by satellite phone.

    "Gaddafi's forces are not yet in control of the town, but we expect it will be bloody today," he said, adding there had already been a series of arrests in suburbs.

    Al-Qusbat is cut off from other rebel positions in the west of Libya, with 70km separating it from the nearest positions at Zlitan to the east.

    The rebels also launched a push to capture the coastal oil town of Brega, but were advancing slowly because Gaddafi's forces had sown minefields across its approaches.

    "There's a big movement on all fronts around Brega, we are attacking from three sides," Mohammad Zawawi, a rebel spokesman said. 

    Fighting on the eastern front of the civil war, which has ebbed backwards and forwards for the past months, has bogged down for weeks on the fringes of Brega, south of the rebel capital Benghazi on the eastern side of the Gulf of Sirte.

    Zawawi said rebel forces were in sight of a residential area of Brega and believed they could take the town, some 750 kilometres east of Tripoli.

    "It could be very soon, but we don't want to lose anybody so we're moving slowly but surely," he said.

    In Misurata, a Qatari plane made a quick stop on Saturday to offload ammunition destined for opposition fighters, Reuters reported, citing sources with knowledge of the flight.

    "The plane offloaded six pickup trucks which were packed with ammunition, and minutes later it flew off again," said one source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

    Airport officials acknowledged a Qatari plane had landed but declined to reveal details of its contents.

    Rebels have repeatedly complained about a lack of weapons and ammunition to effectively push forward to the capital.

    France has also supplied ammunition and weapons in air-drops.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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