Gaddafi forces pull out of central Zawiyah-rebels

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 22, 2011 10:24 AM
Gaddafi forces pull out of central Zawiyah-rebels

By Maria Golovnina

ZAWIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi retreated from the center of the western town of Zawiyah on Saturday after a fierce battle with rebels, a rebel spokesman said.

A doctor in Zawiyah told Reuters at least 30 people, mostly civilians, had been killed during the fighting on Saturday, bringing to 60 the death toll from two days of battles for control of the coastal town.

A Reuters reporter on Zawiyah's outskirts said government forces had encircled the town and were manning checkpoints 3 km from the center.

"They entered Zawiyah at six in the morning with heavy forces, hundreds of soldiers with tanks. Our people fought back ... We have won for now and civilians are gathering in the square," rebel spokesman Youssef Shagan told Reuters.

But at the gates of the coastal city, 50 km (30 miles) west of the capital Tripoli, Gaddafi's forces appeared to be in control and preparing to launch a new offensive. Reinforcements were sent in by Gaddafi, al-Jazeera reported, citing rebels in Zawiyah.

Reporters' access to central Zawiyah was completely blocked. But residents said government tanks had fired at residential buildings and cars and that many civilians were killed, although they could not give a total.

"SLAUGHTER"

"More than 30 people have been killed today. The majority were civilians," the doctor, who runs a field medical clinic in the center of Zawiyah, told Reuters by phone.

The noise of speakerphones inciting rebels to keep on fighting could be heard through the phone. Residents said they were bracing for another attack.

The doctor said that early on Saturday Gaddafi's tanks fired at residential buildings and civilian cars trying to flee.

"There is a lot of destruction in the city, I look around and all I see is destruction. Bombed buildings and burning cars everywhere -- I cannot even count how many," he said.

Another resident said the bodies of eight people had been taken to the mosque for burial.

Residents said Gaddafi forces stormed into residential buildings and killed people inside their houses as they were trying to secure positions on rooftoops for snipers.

"They slaughtered people," said a resident who gave his name as Abu Mohamad. "But we tell Gaddafi that every time a martyr falls, there will be ten to replace him," he said. Libyan government forces fought their way into Zawiyah, where people opposed to Gaddafi's 41-year rule have been fighting his soldiers for more than a week, on Friday.

By evening, they had reasserted their control over most the town, but ran into rebel resistance in the center.

Rebels said that early on Saturday they had managed to push Gaddafi's forces back and capture two tanks from the army.

"We captured 3 APCs, two tanks and one pick-up after an hour and a half of fighting. A lot of civilians fled when the fighting started," Shagan said.

Another rebel fighter said there were casualties on both sides but could not give a precise number.

(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Tunis and Shaimaa Fayed in Cairo; writing by Silvia Aloisi; Editing by Angus MacSwan)