ZAWIYA // Libyan rebels in pickup trucks mounted with weapons and troops loyal to Col Muammar Qaddafi battled in the streets of Zawiya yesterday a day after opposition forces pushed from the western mountains into the strategic city in their most dramatic advance in months.
Pro-Qaddafi snipers shot at rebels from an overpass deep in the city, while loud booms echoed and a column of heavy black smoke rose over the outskirts. Dozens of civilians crammed in cars and fled the city. In one car, four women cried desperately, as their male driver called out: "There are dead people in our neighbourhood."
In Zawiya some of the fiercest battles took place on Ghanam Street, a main road leading into downtown from the south of the city. Lorries sped along it from the city centre, ferrying the wounded and dead, and piling them into ambulances that wailed on their way out of Zawiya.
The city of 200,000 just 50 kilometres west of Tripoli rose up against the regime shortly after the revolt against Col Qaddafi began in February. But his forces crushed opposition in the city in a long and bloody siege in March.
Many rebel fighters from Zawiya fled into the farmlands surrounding the city and western mountains further away, waiting for the right time to join in a new offensive to retake Zawiya. It had been a key target for western mountain rebels and some of those who fled the city earlier were among the forces that advanced on the city on Saturday.
"There were sleeping cells of rebels inside Zawiya," said Abdel-Bassit Abu Riyak, a rebel fighter.
He said that when the fighters in the western mountains arrived to Zawiya, the cell rose up and helped to attack Col Qaddafi's troops.
"Freedom, freedom," chanted a group of men greeting rebels inside Zawiya. One of those in the crowd rolled up his trousers to show black-and-blue bruises he said came from a beating by pro-Qaddafi forces who have been in control of the city for months.
If the rebels can seize control of Zawiya and hold it, that would strain Col Qaddafi's troops, which have been hammered for months by Nato air strikes.
Defending Zawiya is key for the regime but could require bringing in better trained forces who are currently ensuring its hold over Tripoli or fighting rebels on fronts further east.
"From March until last night, we felt fear. But when the rebels came, we were really happy," said Rabih Aboul-Gheit, an accountant in Zawiya.
A group of about 200 exuberant rebel fighters, advancing from the south, reached a bridge on Zawiya's southwestern outskirts on Saturday, and some rebels pushed farther into the city's central main square.
They tore down the green flag of Col Qaddafi's regime from a mosque minaret and put up two rebel flags.
The city was tense yesterday, with the rebels erecting numerous checkpoints inside and on the road leading to it from the west. At one checkpoint, rebels fired in the air to restore order when a crowd gathered around a man who refused to open his car's trunk for inspection.
"Fifth column, fifth column," shouted the crowd, suggesting that the motorist may be a spy for Col Qaddafi's forces. He eventually opened the vehicle to show there was nothing suspicious.
Elsewhere in the city, eight African men were rounded up by the rebels and taken to the local intelligence building. Residents shouted "mercenaries" at them as they were driven across the city to the building, torched during fighting back in February.
The eight men were handcuffed as they sat inside the building. One of the eight, Nigerian Paul Joseph, said he was a worker in Zawiya and that he was arrested by rebels at his apartment.
"I left my seven-months pregnant wife behind in the flat," said Joseph. "We have been trying to get out of Zawiya, but could not."
Outside Zawiya, civilian cars were stopped at checkpoints and searched. Fighter Abdel-Monem Mohammed said he confiscated nine automatic weapons
"No civilians are allowed to carry weapons," he said.
A total death toll was impossible to verify during the height of the chaotic fighting, but Mr Mohammed said Col Qaddafi's troops struck a mosque in the city centre killing eight people and injuring 25. A reporter saw the bodies of two people brought back in lorries from the front line.