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August 2011, Week 3

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Fri, 19 Aug 2011 22:36:57 -0400
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Libyan Rebels Take Control of Az Zawiyah

     Muammar Gaddafi's forces launch counterattack after
     rebels capture key cities of Az Zawiyah and Zlitan.

August 19, 2011
http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2011/08/2011819145519307139.html

Photo: Local residents celebrate after Libyan rebel
fighters drove Gaddafi forces from Gharyan, south of
Tripoli [Reuters]

Libyan opposition fighters have wrested control of the
strategic cities of Az Zawiyah and Zlitan as they pushed
closer to the stronghold of Muammar Gaddafi.

"Az Zawiyah is free," rebels said on Friday as they took
up positions in its hospital hours after securing the
centre of the town.

Fighting continued late on Friday as Gaddafi forces
launched a fierce counterattack along the coastal
highway 50km west of Tripoli.

Sustained blasts from rocket-propelled grenades, mortars
and anti-aircraft guns were heard from the direction of
city's central square as a black column of smoke rose
into the evening sky, Reuters reported.

Reuters said that opposition fighters in city's central
square exchanged heavy fire with Gaddafi forces
occupying a floor of the city's main hospital nearby
before driving them out.

This comes a day after rebels took complete control of
Az Zawiyah's key oil refinery.

To the east, rebels fought bloody street battles in the
city of Zlitan, suffering heavy casualties, Reuters
reported.

The assault on Zlitan, roughly 150km east of the
capital, began around 7:30am local time [0530GMT], and
"at 1:00pm local time our information indicates that the
rebel troops entered the city centre", the information
centre for Misrata military council said in a statement
on Friday.

At least 26 rebels are reported to have been killed in
the fighting for Zlitan, as forces loyal to Gaddafi used
tanks and heavy weapons to repel the attack. Another 150
opposition fighters were reported injured.

The rebels said between 40 and 50 of Gaddafi's forces
were also killed in the fighting.

Government troops have been fighting rebels in and
around Zlitan for months. The town is a major obstacle
in the path from the nearby city of Misrata trying to
make their way to Tripoli.

Al Jazeera's Andrew Simmons, who visited Zlitan,
confirmed the rebel victory there and said there were
scenes of jubilation.

"The rebel fighters took heavy losses, they came under
fire from artillery and rockets but they moved forward,"
Simmons said.

"After fighters from Misrata moved in, opposition
fighters within Zlitan rose and took on, in small
groupings, the Gaddafi forces. The Gaddafi troops pulled
out leaving ammunition and a lot of equipment behind."

Foreigners to be evacuated

As fighting intensified, the International Organization
for Migration announced plans to start evacuating "large
numbers'' of Egyptians and other foreigners, including
some journalists, from Tripoli in coming days.

NATO issued a statement that said its air strikes had
destroyed a command centre, two armed vehicles and five
tanks near Zlitan.

"It was a major block because there wasn't overall
support by the people of Zlitan initially. Those
civilians who may have been Gaddafi supporters were
treated well by the opposition.

"It's a strategic town, [if] they want to advance on to
Tripoli. Now they could do it very quickly. They have a
clear run on this coastal road of almost 60km."

The rebels claimed on Thursday they had captured the
120,000-barrel-per-day refinery in Az Zawiyah, a
potential turning point in the six-month war.

Opposition forces also claimed to be in control of the
town of Surman, 60km west of Tripoli, and Gharyan, 50km
to the south.

Significance of Az Zawiyah

Shashank Joshi, of the Royal United Service Institute in
London, told Al Jazeera the rebels have learned from
past mistakes to move forward methodically.

"They can't just rush ahead and take ground and then
forced to move back," he said.

"They have observed that lesson and I think very
effectively, and this is why they are still fighting to
clear Az Zawiyah.

"They have taken a number of days to fight their way
through to take the refinery and they have worked very
hard for that, which is why they are very likely, this
time around unlike on previous occasions, to actually
hold the ground they had taken."

Joshi continued: "The significance of Az Zawiyah cannot
be seen in isolation, we have to see it in combination
of what’s going on in Gharyan, south of Tripoli and
Zlitan to the east.

"And all of these locations can be consolidated and
their grip solidified, and we are going to see Tripoli
being put in a state of siege."

NATO has stepped up bombings in Tripoli in recent days,
while rebels have severed Gaddafi's supply route from
Tunisia.

Az Zawiyah was one of the first cities to rise up
against the Gaddafi regime when the Libyan revolt began
in mid-February on the heels of the Tunisian and
Egyptian revolutions.

Protests were quickly crushed by the Gaddafi regime,
even going as far as razing a local mosque in the main
square that rebels used as a meeting point and makeshift
hospital.

Target: Tripoli

The Libyan opposition has been seeking to sever
Tripoli's supply lines from Tunisia to the west and to
Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte in the east in a move to cut
off the capital, prompt defections and spark an uprising
inside Gaddafi's stronghold.

Meanwhile, NATO continued with its air raids in parts of
Tripoli. Loud explosions rocked the capital early on
Friday, as flames lit up skies near Gaddafi's Bab al-
Aziziya compund and army barracks.

In Tripoli, a government official said that NATO had
killed the brother of Gaddafi's spokesman, Moussa
Ibrahim.

The official said Hasan Ibrahim, 25, and others were
struck by bullets fired from an Apache helicopter while
on foot in Az Zawiyah's central square.

The revolt in Libya began in mid-February, with the
rebels quickly wresting control of much of the eastern
half of the country, as well as pockets in the west.

The conflict later settled into a stalemate with the
rebels failing to budge the front lines in the east
since April, and making only minor gains from the areas
they controled in the east and in the western Nafusa
mountains.

But this week the rebels made enormous gains in
capturing many western towns and claiming to control the
road from Tripoli to the Tunisian border, the main
supply line of the capital.

Joshi, however, said the rebels would need to move
carefully.

"I won't expect any kind of rush in next several days
and hope they would take all the strategic patience
required."

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