ZAWIYAH, LIBYA // Muammar Qaddafi’s grip on power appeared to be slipping yesterday as Libyan rebel forces advanced to the outskirts of Tripoli from three directions, cutting supply routes and isolating the capital.
The biggest prize so far in the rebels' three-week-old offensive is Zawiyah, a coastal city 50 kilometres west of Tripoli. The rebels also claim to have captured two more towns - Zlitan in the west and Brega in the east. The momentum in the six-month-old Libyan civil war now appears to have firmly swung in the rebels' favour after months of near deadlock. Besides the battlefield gains, the opposition also received a political boost late on Friday with the defection of Abdel-Salam Jalloud, a close associate of Col Qadaffi who took part in the 1969 coup that brought the Libyan ruler to power.
The fight for Tripoli appears imminent. Late on Friday night, a brigade of fighters from Tripoli and based in the Western mountains was furiously mobilising troops to move into the capital.
In Zawiyah's main square yesterday, just hours after the rebels took control, small groups of people gathered to take pictures of the battle scars with their mobile phones. The square was in ruins, ringed by collapsed and scorched buildings. Piles of sands and overturned cars barricaded alleys and, on the ground, lay the bodies of two of Col Qadaffi's soldiers.
While much of the city was deserted, some residents celebrated by driving around in their cars, firing their rifles in the air.
But the sounds of fighting could still be heard east of the city and rockets could be seen arching toward the city.
Usama Mohammed, a rebel fighter who had just returned from the front, said rebel forces had pushed Col Qadaffi's forces about 10 kilometres east of the city.
Zawiyah, home to what was the last oil refinery in government's hand until rebels seized it last week, lies strategically on a road from the Tunisian border that had provided fuel and food supplies to the capital.
Rebels forces pushing from Misurata claimed victory on Friday night over Zlitan, 150 kilometres from Tripoli, on the coastal road. And in the east, 200 kilometres west of Benghazi, the revolutionary forces said they had taken control of the oil town of Brega, culminating a months-long struggle for the city.
Rebels' celebrations rang out across Libya. In Gharyan, 80 kilometres south of Tripoli, on the fringe of the Western mountains, rebels celebrated the fall of that town on Friday with a raucous victory parade.
At Gharyan's northern gate, an abandoned government tank sat surrounded by sand mounds.
Green flags from the Qaddafi regime still hung from the windows of a nearby house. In the main city square, the revolutionary colours - green, black and red - were visible on all the buildings, still bearing the signs of last week's battle.
Conquering the mountain garrison town of Gharyan meant cutting off the supply of weapons from the south, still under Col Qaddafi's control, and blocking the road toward the Algerian border.
But the battle for Gharyan lasted only four hours, mirroring the surprisingly fast collapse of Col Qaddafi's forces across Libya in recent weeks.
"The final attack came from the plain. Qaddafi's forces were not expecting it and they are weak; they lack motivation," said Adel Sagher, a mechanical engineer who is now on the city's military council.
The rebels found a large cache of weapons and ammunition in Gharyan, home to the Sahban Brigade headquarters - the largest military base in the Western mountains.
On Friday, the compound, which was for years the symbol of the regime's power in the area, appeared abandoned. Burnt tanks stood on a hill, empty ammunition boxes were scattered amid the small pine trees and the office of the once fearsome general - Mabrouk Sahban, who ran the garrison for more than 20 years - was charred.
"I would have never thought to see this place like this. It used to be one of the strongest brigades in Libya," said Ibrahim Ramadan Shatti, 56, who worked on the base until 1999.
For the fighters, the battle is not over. Just 65 kilometres from Gharyan lies the city of Azzizya, the last town on the way to Tripoli.
"We will go to Azzizya after," said Adel Sagher.
On Saturday, fighting was reported in various locations on the outskirt of the capital.
Seated in his office in Zintan, a dusty town in the Western mountains, rebel Colonel Ibrahim Jumaa said his forces are in constant touch with rebels in Tripoli and that "sleeper" rebel cells in the capital will rise up once the time is ripe.
"We do not want to lose them so we will wait to use them until we are near the city. In Tripoli we expect a lot of resistance", he said.
With the rebels closing in on the capital, aid agencies said they would attempt to evacuate thousands of foreigners trapped in the city.
with additional reporting by the Associated Press