By By KAREEM FAHIM
ZAWIYAH, Libya — Rebel fighters gained complete control on Thursday of the oil refinery in Zawiyah — just a half hour’s drive from Tripoli, the country’s capital — routing government soldiers after days of battle and advancing into other parts of this strategic port city still controlled by loyalists of Libya’s increasingly isolated leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Employees at the large refinery complex here, which appeared to be undamaged by the fighting, said the remaining pockets of Qaddafi soldiers who had been defending the refinery were driven out overnight. A rebel commander said 5,000 rebel fighters were deployed around the refinery. Rebel sentries manning checkpoints could be seen on a drive around the complex on Thursday, and the discarded green uniforms of Libyan national army soldiers littered the grounds — signs of desertion by the Qaddafi defenders.
The fight for Zawiyah represents a possibly decisive moment in the six-month-old rebellion against Colonel Qaddafi, the quixotic leader whose four-decade-old rule in Libya has been challenged by the tide of antigovernment uprisings that have spread through the Arab world, upending the autocrats of Tunisia and Egypt and threatening regimes elsewhere, including Syria and Yemen.
Colonel Qaddafi has rejected calls to step down and defied defections by subordinates, increased economic and political isolation and NATO air assaults. The rebels themselves have suffered from internal dissension and lack of training. But there have been increasing signs that Colonel Qaddafi’s Tripoli stronghold is fracturing. People fleeing the capital said Wednesday that there was no electricity, and that prices of basic goods have soared amid shortages.
Rebel fighters interviewed at the Zawiyah complex said some Qaddafi loyalists had tried to escape in two boats docked at the refinery port, and that NATO fighter jets had bombed the boats. There was no immediate corroboration of their account from NATO.
Parts of the refinery grounds showed clear signs of battle, with destroyed vehicles and buildings hit by rocket and machine gun fire. Some squads of rebel fighters were seen building defensive berms in anticipation of a counterattack by the Qaddafi forces.
The rebel seizure of the refinery followed a mass departure of civilian refugees from Zawiyah, where sniper and artillery fire from the pro-Qaddafi forces made the escape especially hazardous.
About 2,000 families from Zawiyah, Tripoli and other cities near the fighting on the Libyan coast passed through one rebel checkpoint on Wednesday, according to rebel officials registering the names. Cars and trucks, piled high with refrigerators and other household items, filled a road to the Nafusah Mountains.
For the past week, Libya’s rebels have undertaken a broad offensive with local fighters to seize strategic towns in a bid to shift the course of the stalled war. Their gains have been hard to tally: reports of towns falling to the rebels are frequently amended hours later.
An American official said Wednesday that the United States had deployed two more Predator drones for surveillance operations over Libya, further increasing the pressure on Qaddafi’s forces, according to Reuters. The drones arrived earlier this week, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. It was not immediately clear how many American drones had been deployed for the NATO mission so far.
As rebel officials chased rumors of high-level defections from Colonel Qaddafi’s inner circle, his government confirmed on Tuesday that a senior security official had left. The Libyan government’s chief spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, said that the official, Nassr al-Mabrouk Abdullah, who flew to Cairo on a private plane on Monday, had suffered “social and emotional pressures” before his defection.
The fighting on Wednesday continued in cities that dot the western mountains, including Gheryan in the east and Tiji in the west. Heavy fighting was also reported in Sabratha, on the coast, and doctors who worked in Surman said that city was under rebel control.
By the early afternoon, doctors at a clinic in Bir Muammar, about six miles from the front lines, said three rebels had been killed in the day’s fighting.
Source: New York Times