RABAT (Reuters) - The western Libyan town of Zintan faced heavy shelling from forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi on Monday, two witnesses said, forcing residents to flee, including to caves in the mountainous region.
"Several houses have been destroyed and a mosque minaret was also brought down," Abdulrahmane Daw told Reuters by phone from the town. "New forces were sent today to besiege the city. There are now at least 40 tanks at the foothills of the mountains near Zintan."
Swiss journalist Gaetan Vannay, also reached by telephone, said the shelling was the heaviest in three days. "Today this very strong battle started on the eastern front. Women and children hid in the caves in the forests."
Daw said poorly equipped anti-government forces had managed to keep pro Gaddafi forces from entering the town about 90 miles southwest of the capital Tripoli.
"The city has been under attack since Friday after government forces entered from eastern Shguiga area but they retreated," he said of a nearby hamlet. "On Saturday they bombed and shelled us with heavy machine guns and tanks."
"Today as of 10 a.m. or 10:30 a.m. they have been using explosives and tanks."
He added that the local hospital was poorly equipped and called on international forces to intervene in the area.
Vannay, on assignment for Radio Television Suisse, described a fierce battle on Saturday which Gaddafi forces lost on the southern front, followed by a quieter Sunday.
"There is literally nobody in the city," he said. "The civilians including the youths are the ones defending the city. Many have been lightly wounded and today there were two dead, but those were fighters. There are dead among the Gaddafi forces as well."
"The Gaddafi firepower is way superior to the rebels'."
(Reporting by Souhail Karam, writing by Adam Tanner)