Zawiya becomes epicenter of Libya's civil war

AP News
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Posted: Aug 18, 2011 5:57 AM
Zawiya becomes epicenter of Libya's civil war

Shops are shuttered. Makeshift roadblocks of scrap metal, sand piles and car wrecks block the streets every few hundred yards. Bursts of gunfire and the thud of mortars rattle the streets, sometimes distant, sometimes nearby.

This Mediterranean coastal city of 200,000 is the Libyan rebels' last major obstacle before the capital of Tripoli, just 30 miles a way further east down the coast. And Moammar Gadhafi's forces are expected to defend it at all costs.

Since the rebels entered Zawiya last week _ their most dramatic advance yet after months of stalemate in the civil war _ Gadhafi's troops have been pounding homes, mosques and streets with rockets and mortar fire. Regime snipers positioned in tall buildings, including a bank and a hotel, take aim at anyone who moves.

Hatred of the regime runs particularly deep in Zawiya, which rose up against him when anti-regime protests first swept the country in February. Government troops recaptured the city in brutal fighting a month later.

Rebel fighters, who control the west and south of the city, say they are confident they will soon drive out Gadhafi's soldiers entrenched in the east of the city.

Yet progress is slow. One fighter, Abdel Azzim Ammar, 22, said his unit advanced only about two city blocks on Wednesday because regime snipers are protected by heavy weaponry.

A tour of rebel-held neighborhoods Wednesday revealed scenes from Libya's latest urban battleground.

On Aulad Ajeena Street, a thoroughfare in the western neighborhood of the same name, a group of men gathered around as fighters tried to repair a cannon mounted on the back of a pickup truck. Some carried assault rifles. Most did not.

Ahmed Mansour, 23, holding a rifle, said he is literally defending his home, just around the corner. Many civilians have fled, driving south in long convoys out of rocket range.

Mansour said his parents decided to stay. They try to keep away from windows, he said, after two mortar shells exploded nearby a day earlier.

The conversation was interrupted when a distraught man, wailing, walked toward the group and slumped to the ground. He had just lost a friend in battle. Others rushed toward him and splashed him with water to help him regain his senses, before he was helped up and led to a car.

Moments later, a rebel pickup truck carrying fighters drove past, with men in the back shouting "Allahu Akbar" or "God is Great" and firing in the air. The truck carried the body of a dead fighter, and men on the street responded with the same chant.

A short distance away at a front line clinic, the injured got first treatment. Serious cases have to be driven to the hospital in Zintan, a rebel stronghold nearly two hours away by car. Zawiya's main hospital is under Gadhafi control, with snipers on the roof, and doctors say they have lost many patients because of the long drive south.

"Long live Zawiya and its revolutionaries," read graffiti sprayed on the clinic's outer wall.

At the clinic, doctors received six bodies and treated more than 30 wounded people, said Dr. Safwan Arab. The majority were civilians hit by bullets and shrapnel, he said.

Moments later, a man in his 20s was carried into the clinic. He had been shot in the leg, through the calf muscle, one of the doctors said.

The clinic is ill-equipped, and can only provide the most basic treatment, said Arab.

Across the city, there's a shortage of medicine, said two doctors from another clinic who accompanied an AP reporter on the tour. During the stop at the front line clinic, they spotted some insulin _ not needed for emergency patients _ and took it with them for their patients away from the front.

Just a few minutes later, while driving west toward Zawiya's sprawling refinery complex, the doctors, dressed in light blue surgical gowns, stopped at a makeshift checkpoint to ask whether it was safe to proceed. One of the men at the checkpoint asked whether they had any insulin. Dr. Mohammed Nakeb handed the man two packages of the drug.

Abdel Karim Mohammed, 47, was doing his part by serving as a lookout. He lives just yards from the outer wall of the refinery complex, were rebels fought Wednesday to flush out the remaining Gadhafi troops.

Binoculars hanging from his neck, Mohammed said he goes up to the roof of his two-story building regularly, tries to spot regime forces and then updates the rebel fighters in the area. Only hours earlier, a neighbor had been shot and wounded by snipers close to Mohammed's house, but he said he is undeterred.

He said Gadhafi's end as Libya's ruler is near.

"We are not afraid," he said. "Gadhafi is living underground, like a rat."