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Libyan battle over Zawiya becomes a test of will

Moammar Kadafi's forces launched a predawn assault, rebels report, but a spokesman says that the opposition fighters pushed the regime's commandos out of the city by day's end. Supplies are running low and 'it is an unequal fight,' he adds.

March 06, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi and Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times
  • Captured soldiers from forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi are presented by rebels after clashes for control of downtown Zawiya, west of the capital, Tripoli.
Captured soldiers from forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi are… (Reuters )

Reporting from the outskirts of Zawiya, Libya, and — Rebel fighters appeared to repel an assault by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi on a city that has become a crucial test of the two sides' will, as unrest inspired by the "people power" revolutions in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt increasingly veered toward civil war.

Throughout the day, government-allied commandos with hooded faces and assault rifles could be seen driving toward the western city of Zawiya in pickup trucks. Checkpoints manned by soldiers and irregulars in civilian clothes surrounded both main and secondary roadways into the city center. Bursts of automatic-weapons fire could be heard from the direction of downtown.

Opposition supporters in the city said Kadafi's forces began the assault before dawn Saturday with tanks, mortars and automatic weapons.

By the end of the day, rebel spokesman Mohammed Ali said, fighters opposed to Kadafi's 41-year rule had pushed the government forces out of Zawiya. A giant flag from Libya's pre-Kadafi era remained displayed downtown, witnesses said.

"Our supplies are running low and it is an unequal fight," Ali said. "The war machine of Kadafi is quite diverse and quite ruthless."

The fighting in Libya is part of a wave of popular unrest shaking the Arab world. But unlike the two uprisings that ousted leaders on its borders, oil-rich Libya's tribal and regional differences are transforming the conflict into a potential civil war. In recent days, rebel forces have captured two key oil complexes in the country's east.

And just before dawn Sunday, machine-gun fire rattled the center of Tripoli. It was unclear who was shooting or why. Reporters also heard car horns blaring. News services quoted a regime official as saying the fusillade was celebratory gunfire and not the sound of fighting.

The shift toward a military confrontation may give Kadafi an advantage. For now, he has access to better and more hardware than the rebels as well as a functioning air force. A battle against an armed force also allows Kadafi to assert a moral equivalency with his opponents that he would not have if he were confronting only peaceful protesters.

But Kadafi is under enormous international pressure, with two U.S. warships off the Libyan coast and world leaders — including heads of Arab states — calling for his departure. Waging an all-out battle against rebels might escalate the international confrontation as well as make it all the more difficult to reunify the country.

Paul Sullivan, a Libya expert at Georgetown University, said that since the country split into east and west early in the rebellion, the battles have been relatively small and aimed at psychological victories.

"This is likely to go on for some time and is a matter of who holds out the longest in an environment when everyone is trying to cut off supplies for the opponent," Sullivan said.

The rebels are constricted by the limited supply of trained fighters and munitions obtained as members of Kadafi's famously fractious military break away to join them.

They suffered a blow Friday when a massive explosion destroyed a munitions base near Benghazi, the eastern cradle of the rebellion, leaving several craters 50 feet deep, acres of scorched earth and shattered windows miles away.

There were conflicting reports about the cause of the explosions in the town of Rajmeh, with some saying a plane fired two rockets at the depot, but it appeared to be the first successful attack by pro-Kadafi forces against the rebels' largest stockpiles.

Another armory, in Ajdabiya, about 100 miles south, has been attacked with missiles at least three times since the beginning of the uprising, but each time the strikes missed the more than a dozen buildings full of weapons.

Kadafi's forces have their own limitations: the frequently shaky loyalty of the fighters and challenges replenishing supplies.

"Despite the regime's financial resources, it is very difficult to bring things from Egypt overland," which would entail crossing into eastern Libya, Sullivan said. "If someone is thinking about bringing them over the southern desert, there are about 2 million land mines waiting for them from World War II.

"Algeria doesn't like Kadafi, so you can't bring anything from there. The only way to be replenished is by sea, and the international community is watching that very closely."

According to figures announced by the government Friday, 374 people had been killed in the conflict. Independent observers have put the death toll in the thousands. The fighting has contributed to regional jitters that have driven oil prices above $100 a barrel.

Libyan officials dismiss the rebels as Islamist radicals tied to Al Qaeda. "They are like the Taliban," said one Libyan security official in the town of Nasriyah, south of Zawiya. The opposition claims that Kadafi's forces are bolstered by African mercenaries, an assertion denied by Libyan officials.

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