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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Libya rebels fight for refineries and seize town as US deploys more drones

Rebels to closing in on Libya’s capital fought forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi for control of oil facilities vital to winning the six-month-old civil war.

They also announced the capture of another town, Garyan, about 80 km (50 miles) south of Tripoli, parking a tank in the main square and raising the rebel flag.

The United States deployed two more Predator drones for surveillance operations over Libya, a US official said, as Colonel Qaddafi’s forces faced unprecedented pressure.

In Zawiyah, 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli, rebels assaulted a coastal oil refinery to try to drive the last Qaddafi forces out and tighten their noose around the capital. A rebel spokesman said a pipeline to Tripoli was cut.

Doctors at a hospital a few kilometers (miles) south of Zawiyah said nine people were killed and at least 45 injured in fighting on Wednesday, most of them rebels, and said pro-Qaddafi forces had hit a house near the hospital with Grad rockets.

A Reuters witness saw the bodies of two Qaddafi soldiers outside the hospital, who medics said were mercenaries from Chad. There was no word on the outcome of the assault on the refinery by early on Thursday.

In Brega, on the eastern front, rebel forces said they had suffered 18 killed and 33 wounded on Tuesday and Wednesday in their battle to dislodge Colonel Qaddafi forces from the oil port and refinery, where they have been fighting for many days.

Fifteen of the rebels were killed on Tuesday and three on Wednesday, said spokesman Mohammad Zawawi.

Libyan state television showed video of Colonel Qaddafi supporters at the Brega terminal on Wednesday chanting the leader’s name.

After 41 years of supreme power, the 69-year-old Qaddafi seems isolated. Rebel forces are closing in from the west, south and east, cutting off his Tripoli stronghold on the Mediterranean shore. Colonel Qaddafi’s whereabouts are not known.

Aided by NATO’s fighter-bombers, assault helicopters and a naval blockade, the rebels have transformed the battle in the last few days after many weeks of stalemate.

Zawiyah controls the western highway linking Tripoli to Tunisia. Colonel Qaddafi forces were holding the refinery there and harassing rebels in the city with shelling and sniper fire.

A rebel spokesman from the opposition-held city of Misrata to the east of Tripoli said rebels had found the buried bodies of civilians they said had been slaughtered by Colonel Qaddafi forces.

“We discovered a mass grave containing 150 bodies in Tawargha. These are the corpses of civilians kidnapped from Misrata by Gaddafi's loyalists,” he said. Rebels found a video “showing kidnappers cutting the throats of people,” he said.

The spokesman said rebel forces were now outside a place called Hisha about 100 km (60 miles) west of Misrata on the road to Tripoli. “They are now on the coastal road,” he said.

Zawiyah’s refinery is one of the few sources of fuel for Colonel Qaddafi’s troops and the people of Tripoli. A rebel commander said the pipeline linking it to Tripoli was severed on Tuesday.

Colonel Qaddafi’s green flags were still flying from a refinery building and an electrical pylon in Zawiyah. The rest of the city now flies the red, black and green flag of the rebels.

If the pipeline to Tripoli is indeed cut, “that would imply dire consequences for the population in Tripoli in terms of fuel supplies needed for the city to keep operating,” said Fernando Calado of the International Organization for Migration.

Mr. Calado said there had been a sharp increase in the past week in the number of foreign nationals asking to be evacuated. He estimated that more than 300,000 foreigners remain in Tripoli, including many from the Philippines and Sri Lanka, as well as Libya’s neighbors Chad, Egypt and Tunisia.

“We have received 2,000 requests at this point. The potential caseload is huge. We’re exploring the possibility of land, sea and air evacuations,” he told Reuters.

Libya’s rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) denies holding secret talks with Gaddafi to end the war. But suspicions persist that some form of end-game negotiation may be going on.

The NTC insists Colonel Qaddafi should step down and leave Libya, saying talks ignoring this basic demand would be “unthinkable.”


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