By CHARLES LEVINSON
GHARYAN, Libya—For over two decades Col. Mabrouk Sahban commanded Libyan security forces in the Western Mountains from his spacious second-story office with a private washroom on a pine-shaded hilltop in this strategic garrison town. On Friday, that office lay in ashen ruins.
hone, labeled ext. 103, had melted to the incinerated desk. Earlier in the week, rebel fighters claimed this city, which sits just 43 miles south of Tripoli and straddles a north-south thoroughfare connecting the capital to Col. Gadhafi’s southern supply hubs, his traditional stronghold of Sebha and neighboring Algeria.
“I never thought I’d see it like this,” said Ibrahim Ramadan Shati, a 46-year-old Gharyan resident who had served as a soldier in Col. Gadhafi’s army at this base in the late 1990s. “This was one of the strongest brigades in all of Libya. Now it’s gone.”
Rebel advances here and in the coastal town of Zawiya have severed road links and supply lines to and from the capital. With Tripoli cut off from the outside world, by rebel forces on the ground and North Atlantic Treaty Organization ships and planes in the sea and air, concern has mounted over a possible refugee exodus from the capital of two million residents.
The International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental relief group that assists migrants, announced it had begun working to find ways to rescue thousands of Egyptians and other foreigners trapped in the city, which has been cut off as a results of the rebel gains earlier this week.
It was a day of fierce fighting on other fronts. East of Tripoli, Misrata’s rebels suffered 30 dead and 120 wounded, but by the end of the day claimed victory over Zliten, a city they have fought back and forth over for several weeks and standing between them and Tripoli.
NATO continued to bombard regime targets in the capital, including the home of Abdullah al-Senussi, Col. Gadhafi’s brother-in-law and head of intelligence, according to Reuters.
In the coastal city of Zawiya, just 30 miles west of Tripoli, rebels continued close-quarters combat with loyalist forces for control of the town, which stands as the Western gateway to Tripoli. In six days of fighting, rebels have made substantial gains in the city, but are struggling to finish off Col. Gadhafi’s forces, who rebels said received a crucial resupply overnight.
Col. Gadhafi appears to have given up a robust defense of territory elsewhere, including Gharyan, to focus his remaining military power on Zawiya. Long regarded as the Libyan leader’s Western Mountain stronghold, Gharyan’s defenses collapsed in just four or five hours on Sunday, one day after the battle for Zawiya began. It took another 24 hours to clear out the last remnants of Col. Gadhafi’s forces from the city.
“We had always been told how important Gharyan was, we heard Gadhafi had brough in reinforcements, but when we attacked, it all dissolved,” said Adel Seger, a rebel commander in the city. Still, rebels said they lost 35 fighters in the battle to retake the city.
Rebels marched through the city’s streets firing rifles into the air and waving rebel flags on Friday. They also buried their dead, including a 19-year-old boy killed by a sniper.
At the boy’s gravesite, his brothers wept and had to be carried away draped over their friends’ shoulders. There were hints of the scars that six months of civil war have left on Libyan society. One resident, Faisal Jailani, said one of the snipers who had terrorized the city’s residents had lived among them for nearly 30 years, before rebels captured him this week.
“We helped raise this boy. How could he turn against us like this?” wondered Mr. Jailani. “I hope he hangs.”
But for the rest of the city, Friday was a day of jubilation. Muftah al-Arabi reopened his camera shop and recounted how Col. Gadhafi’s henchmen used to show up and demand free services, such as, on one occasion, 1,000 posters of Col. Gadhafi. If he refused, he would be branded a dissident and jailed, he said.
“He’s finished, Gadhafi is finished,” Mr. Arabi said, with a beaming smile.
That buoyant optimism has infected rebel ranks. In recent days, as rebels have advanced closer to Tripoli, there have been an increasing flow of reports in Arab and Western media outlets that the end of Col. Gadhafi’s rule is imminent.
Abdel Moneim al-Houni, the rebels’ envoy in Cairo, told the al-Jazeera television network on Friday that Col. Gadhafi had sent letters to the leaders of Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and South Africa asking for safe refuge for his wife, daughter and one of his sons. NBC News cited U.S. officials who claimed Col. Gadhafi was making preparations to leave Libya with his family, possibly for Tunisia.
French and United Nations mediators have been involved in closed-door talks with rebel and government officials in Tunisia all week, according to U.N. officials and former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, Le Parisien newspaper reported, who was one of the mediators.
On Thursday, the rebels’ National Transitional Council appointed a team to oversee an urgent national mobilization plan. The plan calls for the massive transfer of personnel and equipment west toward Tripoli from the rebels de facto capital in Benghazi once the fighting begins for the capital or Col. Gadhafi falls, according to Fathi Baja, a rebel council member in charge of security issues.
Rebels have also begun broadcasting messages to Tripoli residents using their radio and satellite television networks trying to counter months of propaganda by Col. Gadhafi’s media. The messages sought to reassure Tripoli residents that rebel fighters would not cause them harm when they entered the capital and urged residents to prevent looting and other acts of disorder.
“I think the zero hour is very soon, and I think the ground is very prepared to take Tripoli,” said Mr. Baja.
Source: Wall Street Journal