Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Rebels launch push to consolidate Tripoli siege

Libyan rebels launched an assault on an oil refinery on Wednesday to drive the last remaining troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi out of a city on Tripoli's outskirts and consolidate their siege of the capital.
After 41 years of supreme power in his oil-rich desert state 69-year-old Gaddafi is looking isolated, with reinvigorated rebel forces closing in on the capital from the west and south and cutting off its road links to the outside.
Six months into an often stalemated conflict, rebels have transformed the battle in the last few days by seizing most of the city of Zawiyah on Tripoli's western outskirts, as well as a town to the south, cutting Tripoli's two main supply routes.
In Zawiyah, which controls the main highway linking Tripoli to the Tunisian border, Gaddafi forces hoping to break the siege have retained control of an oil refinery and have harassed the rebels with shelling and snipers on rooftops of tall buildings.
"There are some snipers inside the refinery facility. We control the gates of the refinery. We will be launching an operation to try to take control of it shortly," said rebel fighter Abdulkarim Kashaba.
Heavy shooting could be heard near the refinery and Gaddafi's green flags could be seen still flying from a building and an electrical pylon. The rest of the city now flies the red, black and green flag used by the rebels.
Under a bridge, rebels loaded large-caliber ammunition into a car and headed toward the refinery. Other rebels could be seen speeding in that direction.
Elsewhere in Zawiyah appeared quiet on Wednesday and under rebel control. The city was largely deserted and shops were boarded up, with clusters of rebel fighters in the streets.
Medical workers at a hospital on the outskirts said three people had been killed and 35 injured on Tuesday, most of them civilians, as Gaddafi's troops shelled the town and snipers fired from its rooftops.
An increasingly confident rebel leadership has dismissed reports that it was holding secret talks with representatives of the Libyan leader in neighboring Tunisia.
Libya's rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) denied negotiating with Gaddafi to resolve the conflict. Sources have said the two sides were meeting in Tunisia this week where a U.N. envoy has also arrived for talks.
"The NTC would like to affirm that there are no negotiations either direct or indirect with the Gaddafi regime or with the special envoy of the United Nations," said NTC leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil. Gaddafi must step down and leave Libya, he said.
"It is unthinkable to hold any negotiations or talks that disregard this basic principle."
In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Gaddafi's forces had been thrown back onto the defensive, and reports that a senior figure in the Libyan security apparatus had defected indicated the regime was cracking.
"Gaddafi's forces are weakened and this latest defection is another example of how weak they've gotten," Panetta said.
"I think the sense is that Gaddafi's days are numbered," Panetta said at event with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.More...

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