By Maria Golovnina
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libyan forces loyal to leader Muammar Gaddafi are using tanks and aircraft to bombard the town of Zawiyah near the capital but rebels still control the central square, witnesses said on Tuesday.
They said many buildings, including mosques, had been destroyed, and rebel forces had been calling on residents over loud hailers to help defend their positions in the center of Zawiyah, a town about 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli.
"Fighting is still going on now. Gaddafi's forces are using tanks. There are also sporadic air strikes. The situation here is very bad," said a resident, called Ibrahim, who spoke to Reuters by telephone from Zawiyah.
"Many buildings have been destroyed including mosques. About 40 to 50 tanks are taking part in the bombardment .. But they could not reach the center of the town which is still in the control of the revolutionaries," he said.
Zawiyah, a town of about 200,000, has been the focus of heavy fighting for days but the rebels, pinned back to an area in the center they have renamed "Martyrs' Square," have been able to hold on.
The town is one of only two big population centers still defying Gaddafi's rule outside the main rebel stronghold in the east of Libya.
Journalists have not been able to reach Zawiyah and telephone connections have been almost non-existent, making information scarce and impossible to verify independently.
"Telephone connections were cut. I'm now able to speak on the phone because I'm standing on the top of a building," said Ibrahim.
A government spokesman, Mussa Ibrahim, said he could not comment on the reports of bombardments. Earlier he told Reuters a small group of fighters was still putting up resistance.
"The situation is very difficult. There are still pockets of resistance, maybe 30-40 people, hiding in the streets and in the cemetery. They are desperate," he told Reuters in Tripoli.
Sky television footage of fighting in the town over the weekend showed crowds fleeing gunfire and a blood-spattered hospital crammed with the injured, some making victory signs from stretchers. A mosque was also being used to treat injured.
The film showed bodies of dead soldiers, others it said had switched sides, and captured tanks.
The government has denied using deliberate military force against civilians. Officials have said the fighters in Zawiyah are affiliated to al Qaeda, and that security forces have been using the minimum of force necessary to defeat them.
Another Zawiyah resident, who asked not to be identified, said pro-Gaddafi forces had deployed snipers along the road out of town and were shooting at people who traveled that way.
"They (Gaddafi's forces) will never enter the town. Revolutionaries are everywhere," he said.
A Ghanaian migrant worker who had been living in Zawiyah said he was able to get out at 10:00 a.m. (0800 GMT) on Tuesday and travel to neighboring Tunisia.
"The rebels in the streets were calling people from speakers to help defend the town," he said after crossing the border into Tunisia.
A Libyan man who lives in exile abroad said he managed to get through on Tuesday to a friend in the city.
"My friend said it's miserable. He described that Gaddafi forces are trying to destroy the city. Many buildings are completely destroyed, including hospitals, electricity lines and generators," he said.
"People cannot run away, it's cordoned off. They cannot flee. All those who can fight are fighting, including teenagers. Children and women are being hidden."
He added: "They tried to evacuate. Their (Gaddafi forces) tanks are everywhere, firing. They (rebels) are fighting back. Gaddafi's army is not in control. The fighting is continuing."
Reporters have been prevented from entering Zawiyah and other cities near the capital without an official escort. Some reporters who tried to reach the city independently have been detained by the authorities.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers and Mariam Karouny at Ras Jdir, Tunisia; writing by Maria Golovnina and Christian Lowe; editing by Andrew Roche)