Africa

Libya conflict: Rebels celebrate in Zlitan

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Media captionThe BBC's Orla Guerin in Zlitan: "Rebels believe the endgame has begun"

The BBC's Orla Guerin travelled to the strategic Libyan coastal town of Zlitan to check for herself the rebels' claim that they have taken it. From nearby Misrata, she spoke to the BBC News Channel about what she saw.

I can tell you that the rebels have certainly taken the town. They appear to have a firm grip. We have seen rebels in the city centre, in the main street manning checkpoints.

Civilians were beginning slowly to come back out onto the streets.

Some families had actually loaded up their cars and were leaving, coming back to Misrata. They had originally been in Misrata and had been trapped in Zlitan - and they were passing by, saluting the rebels, honking their horns and saying "thank you for the victory".

There was a real sense there of buoyancy, a sense of celebration.

We heard some small arms fire, some incoming mortars - there may still be some pockets of resistance - and the rebels told us that beyond a strategic bridge in the centre of town there was still a risk of sniper and mortar fire.

But, I have to say, there was a very heavy rebel presence and they seemed to be asserting their control, taking charge - and it seemed that there was very little possibility that any remaining Colonel Gaddafi forces would be able to try to break through and challenge them seriously.

I think the challenge now will come from mortar fire which is coming from outside.

But the rebels are pretty confident that most of the pro-Gaddafi forces have been pushed back. They said they saw a large number on Friday streaming in the direction of Tripoli but obviously they couldn't be sure exactly how far they had gone.

Heavy losses

The rebels are trying to move forward now step by step, and in order to make progress from Misrata towards the capital, they had to take Zlitan.

The distance between those two areas is about 50km (30 miles) - and from Zlitan to push forward along the coastal road up to Tripoli is about another 150km or so, less than two hours' drive.

They couldn't go around Zlitan. There were heavy numbers of Gaddafi troops inside, and there were also supporters of Colonel Gaddafi, civilians who back the regime. So they had to tackle that area and gain control. They have now done that.

They do intend to press forward, they say, but it's not going to be necessarily a smooth advance.

They had very heavy losses on Friday - the death toll has climbed to 40 rebel fighters.

Other fighters told us they could have more heavy losses as they press forward.

The next target will be a town called al-Khoms.

But they believe that they have significant support inside. They have fighters inside that town, they say, who are waiting for them to advance and who will join them when they arrive.

We just do not know the timescale of this. Nobody is giving any sort of projections for how quickly or how slowly they might move. Some fighters were claiming it might be two weeks, some were saying it might be a month.

We do think that after this heavy loss in Zlitan they will need some time at least to regroup and re-arm.

But we believe they did capture some weaponry from Colonel Gaddafi's troops on Friday.

That will be welcome because there have been continuing problems among the fighters here with limited ammunition and limited weapons.

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