Onslaught on oil town tightens noose on Tripoli

The Sunday Times

The sniper’s bullet sliced into Musab Shawish’s thigh as the rebel fighter rammed another magazine clip into his assault rifle. The 26-year-old student crumpled to the ground among the empty bullet casings strewn across the rebel-controlled road junction in the centre of Zawiya.

Still able to move despite his wound, Shawish rolled quickly out of the sniper’s line of fire. A group of fighters huddled on the pavement against the crumbling wall of a shuttered shop swarmed to Shawish’s rescue, dragging the stocky fighter away from the front line by his arms and legs, through an alleyway and towards an ambulance parked behind a nearby building.

“You better kick Muammar Gadaffi’s arse for me,” Shawish shouted as he was loaded onto a stretcher and shoved into the back of the ambulance.

As the rear doors slammed shut, Shawish, lying on his back, raised two fingers in a victory salute.

For the past week, rebels vying for control of the strategically important oil town of Zawiya have slogged it out with Gadaffi’s troops in heavy street-to-street fighting.

The rebels’ advance into Zawiya coincides with several assaults on towns to the east and west of Tripoli, giving their motley forces a stranglehold on the Libyan capital. Rebels said yesterday that they had captured the town of Zlitan, east of Tripoli.

Last night crowds of anti-government protesters were on the streets of Tripoli as gunfire and explosions shook the capital. Nato ran a series of bombing raids in the early hours in co-ordination with the rebels on the ground.

Residents received text messages from the government urging them to fight “armed agents” as the struggle for the capital took on a new urgency.

Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, vice-chairman of the National Transition Council in Benghazi, said: “The zero hour has started. The rebels in Tripoli have risen up. There is co-ordination with the rebels from the east, west and south. The next hours are crucial. Many of the [pro-Gadaffi] brigades have fled.”

Residents of Zawiya, an oil town, which lies only 30 miles west of Tripoli along the coastal highway, flocked to the freshly captured main square on Friday night, chanting: “Oh, youth of Zawiya, you have made it a bright night.”

Abdul Rahman, 45, a former Libyan army officer who lives in Manchester but is fighting with the rebels, said: “Once we have Zawiya under full control, we will march on Tripoli.”

Zawiya was one of the first towns to rise up against Gadaffi when the Libyan revolt began in mid-February. The protests were crushed by the regime’s forces, who bulldozed over the graves of fighters in the main square before razing a mosque that the rebels had used as a makeshift hospital.

Last week, with support from rebel artillery sent from the western mountains, anti-Gadaffi fighters entered Zawiya. The fighting has been fierce: doctors estimate that more than 100 rebels have been killed by mortar, rocket and sniper fire since the battle erupted.

The rebels focused their manpower on capturing key landmarks — the central hospital, the main square and the town’s 120,000-barrels-per-day oil refinery, seized on Wednesday after Nato Apache attack helicopters raked the Libyan army’s pick-up trucks with Hellfire missiles and cannon fire.

The next day, the rebels set their sights on taking the main square, advancing from the west and north under barrages of mortar and rocket fire.

To the south of the square, the rebels placed rocks on the accelerators of three large cement mixer lorries and locked the steering wheels with rope. The driverless vehicles were sent slowly into the middle of the square until they careered into lampposts and chunks of concrete torn off buildings by the heavy shelling. The rebels now had fortified positions on the south side of the square.

Later that evening, they suffered a setback. Nato ordered the fighters to withdraw from their hard-won positions so that its warplanes could bomb Gadaffi’s snipers concealed in a hotel and a government building on the side of the square.

At about 7.15pm, two 500lb bombs struck both buildings. The airstrikes backfired. Gadaffi’s forces used the rebels’ withdrawal to creep back into the square overnight. Snipers reoccupied the dilapidated hotel, a bank and the government building.

By daybreak on Friday, the rebels found themselves locked in a violent stalemate with Gadaffi’s snipers, fighting for ground that they had captured the day before.

“They [Nato] told us to pull back so they could do an airstrike, but all it’s done is allow Gadaffi to come back in,” said Aiman Bahrun, 30, whose shoulder was pierced by mortar shrapnel on Thursday morning. “We were in the bank and hotel. Now it’s theirs. If it wasn’t for Nato we’d still be standing in the square.”

As he spoke, the Libyan army, stationed on the eastern edge of the city, lobbed rockets and mortars at rebel positions west and north of the square. Most of the rockets sailed overhead but occasionally one screeched lower, sending the rebels ducking for cover.

Rocket-propelled grenades exploded in the air in small puffs of black smoke, raining down shrapnel behind the rebels’ front line. At midday, with photographer Paul Conroy, I witnessed the rebel front line at a T-junction 200 yards west of the main square. Sniper fire during the morning had prevented them from advancing. Mortars exploded 100 yards away, shaking the surrounding buildings.

For three hours, we watched Shawish and his fellow rebels race back and forth across the narrow T-junction, firing wildly from the hip with machineguns and assault rifles at snipers in a bank across the square. Sniper bullets pinged into the lampposts and walls, so close that they covered fighters in fine white powder.

As the fighting intensified at about 2.30pm, Shawish paused on the edge of the street corner to reload his Kalashnikov. The sniper’s bullet caught him in the right thigh, knocking him to the tarmac yards from where we stood. The bullet passed through his flesh, missing the bone and artery.

After carrying Shawish to the ambulance, the rebels set fire to car tyres with petrol and rolled them down the street. Thick black smoke whirled into the sky, cloaking the fighters’ movements from the snipers so they could push up side streets towards the square.

Buoyed by the arrival of an anti-aircraft gun mounted on a pick-up truck, more rebel fighters crept up the alleys.

Reinforcements arrived with new rocket-propelled grenades still wrapped in their manufacturer’s plastic sheaths. Half an hour later, rebel fighters began to trickle back from the front line carrying flak jackets, weapons and ammunition seized from buildings abandoned by the Libyan army. We sprinted behind a small band of rebel fighters towards the square amid gunfire.

By yesterday morning, rebel forces had chased soldiers from the central hospital and by last night they were celebrating having won control of the city.

In another blow to Gadaffi, rebels said Abdel-Salam Jalloud, a former No 2 in the regime, had defected to fighters in the western mountains.

Emad Hungari, 29, a doctor who ferries casualties from the front line to a poorly equipped aid station a few miles south of Zawiya, said: “We want Gadaffi’s head, that’s all. When we have his head then everything will be okay.”

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