Battle for Libya: Gaddafi troops engage Zawiya rebels

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Media captionCol Gaddafi's heavy armour is poised outside the town of Zawiya

Fierce fighting has rocked Libya's Zawiya, 50km (30 miles) west of Tripoli, as rebels repelled government efforts to retake the key city.

Pro-government forces were pushed out of the city centre in heavy fighting on Saturday morning, but regrouped for a fresh assault.

Early on Sunday, heavy gunfire was heard in the capital.

Rebels fighting Col Muammar Gaddafi have taken control of the port of Ras Lanuf to the east of Tripoli.

The rebels have pushed further west towards Sirte, Col Gaddafi's heavily guarded hometown, and captured the town of Bin Jawad, 160km (100 miles) from Sirte.

Observers say the overall balance of power is difficult to assess as the struggle for control over Libya continues.

Details of Sunday's gunfire in Tripoli were unclear, but correspondents said it was the most sustained so far heard there.

Co Gaddafi meanwhile told the French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche that he wanted "an investigatory commission of the United Nations or the African Union" to come to Libya. "We will let this panel work unhampered," he said.

Downed jet

Regime loyalists appear to have been consolidating control in Tripoli and other central areas.

But elsewhere, correspondents say rebel forces have an enormous determination to overthrow his regime.

Gaining control of Zawiya would be crucial to Col Gaddafi's effort to defend his stronghold in Tripoli, correspondents say.

Reports from the coastal city said it had come under attack from both east and west from well-armed government forces in large numbers of tanks and armoured vehicles.

Heavy gunfire was heard in the central square as the rebels fought back using weapons they had captured earlier.

Pro-government tanks had circled the area in preparation for the fresh attack, shelling central areas of the city, where fires burned under a cloud of dense black smoke.

Earlier, Zawiya resident and rebel supporter Mohammed told the BBC that pro-Gaddafi troops "came from east and west and they took up positions in high-rise buildings... and started shooting".

He said some tanks were captured and burnt near the town square, and that there were jubilant celebrations from the rebels as the pro-Gaddafi forces fled.

Another Zawiya resident, Hussein, said many civilians had been killed, including women and children - as up to 40 cars filled with soldiers attacked backed up by tanks and anti-aircraft guns.

"There are people dying everywhere. It is a disaster what is happening in Zawiya. We really need some help," Hussein told the BBC.

A doctor in the city said at least 30 people had died in Saturday's fighting.

Image caption Rebels said they pushed government forces out of Zawiya early on Saturday

Libya's Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim said "99%" of Zawiya was under government control. "The situation in Zawiya is quiet and peaceful right now," he said on Saturday.

"We hope by tomorrow morning, life will be back to normal."

In his interview with Le Journal du Dimanche, Col Gaddafi warned that thousands would flee Libya for Europe if the rebels won.

He expressed dismay at the lack of international support for his cause.

"I am surprised that nobody understands that this is a fight against terrorism," Col Gaddafi said.

He also criticised the international community for freezing assets, saying countries were trying to steal money from Libya. He said money held abroad did not belong to him. "I only have this tent," he said.

'Male population armed'

After heavy fighting on Friday, rebel forces took control of Ras Lanuf, an oil port east of Sirte.

The rebels have pushed further west and taken the town of Bin Jawad. Some of the rebels said they were determined to push on to Sirte.

The town is heavily guarded and is unlikely to fall without a struggle, correspondents say.

An Indian national teaching in Sirte told the BBC she could hear sporadic artillery fire on Saturday. Sunita Singh said the male population of Sirte had been armed to help with the defence of the city.

In other developments:

  • Hospital officials in opposition-held Benghazi say the death toll from a massive explosion at a weapons dump outside the city is at least 26, with the cause of the blast unknown
  • Thousands of migrant workers are on the move, trying to flee the violence, say officials at the UN's refugee agency. Most of those living in Benghazi have been evacuated, while about 10,000 others are heading for the Egyptian border
  • Libyan state TV accuses the Netherlands of spying, following the capture on Sunday of a Dutch navy helicopter and its three-strong crew by government militias
  • Rebels show reporters the wreckage of a downed warplane near Ras Lanuf in eastern Libya

In Benghazi, the rebels have formed a 30-member National Libyan Council which it says is now the country's sole representative.

It has a three-member crisis committee, which includes a head of military affairs and one for foreign affairs.

Omar Hariri, one of the officers who took part in Col Gaddafi's 1969 coup but was later jailed, was appointed head of the military, Reuters reported, while Ali Essawi, a former ambassador to India who quit last month, was put in charge of foreign affairs.

The council said it would withhold the names of those members in Gaddafi-controlled areas for their own safety.

The UN estimates that more than 1,000 people have been killed in the violence in Libya.

Libya, military bases map

Protests in the capital had centred on Green Square and various key buildings, like the headquarters of state TV and the People's Hall, were attacked and damaged. But Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, and his supporters are very much in control of Tripoli. Colonel Gaddafi has appeared several times on television from his compound in Bab al-Azizia making defiant speeches condemning the protests.

Libya, military bases map

The Libyan Army is a weak force of little more than 40,000, poorly armed and poorly trained. Keeping the army weak is part of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's long-term strategy to eliminate the risk of a military coup, which is how he himself came to power in 1969. The defection of some elements of the army to the protesters in Benghazi is unlikely to trouble the colonel. His security chiefs have not hesitated to call in air strikes on their barracks in the rebellious east of the country.

Libya, oil

Libya produces 2.1% of the world's oil. Since the protests began, production has dropped, although Saudi Arabia has promised to make up any shortfall. The high revenue it receives from oil means Libyans have one of the highest GDPs per capita in Africa. Sirte basin is responsible for most of Libya's oil output. It contains about 80% of the country's proven oil reserves, which amount to 44 billion barrels, the largest in Africa.

Libya, population

Most of Libya's 6.5m poplation is concentrated along the coast and around the country's oilfields. Population density is about 50 persons per square kilometre along the coast. Inland, where much of the country is covered by inhospitable desert, the population density falls to less than one person per square kilometre.

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