x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Qaddafi rebels gear up for battle near Tripoli

Libyan leader's forces surround rebel-held city as tanks and anti-aircraft guns mounted on trucks are reportedly deployed in the key area near the capital that has fallen into opposition hands.

ZAWIYA// Hundreds of anti-government forces backed by rebel troops who control the city closest to Tripoli appeared to be readying yesterday to battle forces loyal to Col Muammar Qaddafi who have surrounded Zawiya.

An Associated Press reporter who reached Zawiya, 50 kilometres west of Tripoli, confirmed the rebels were in control of the centre of the city of 200,000. They have army tanks and anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickup trucks deployed. But on the outskirts, they are surrounded by pro-Qaddafi forces.

There were at least six checkpoints controlled by troops loyal to Colonel Qaddafi on the road from Tripoli to Zawiya. Each checkpoint was reinforced by one tank, and the troops concealed their faces with scarves.

Colonel Qaddafi has launched by far the bloodiest crackdown in a wave of uprising sweeping the Arab world. The United States, Britain and the UN Security Council all imposed sanctions on Libya over the weekend. And US President Barack Obama said it was time for Col Qaddafi to go.

Zawiya, a key city close to an oil port and refineries, is the nearest population centre to Tripoli to fall into opposition hands.

Police stations and government offices inside the city have been torched and anti-Qaddafi graffiti was everywhere. Many buildings are pockmarked by bullets.

"Qaddafi Out," chanted hundreds in the city centre. Charred cars littered the city and most streets were blocked by palm tree trunks or metal barricades. "Free, Free Libya," chanted members of the anti-government forces at the city centre.

"Down with Qaddafi, the mass murderer," read graffiti scrawled in the city. An effigy of Col Qaddafi hung from a light pole in the city's main square. On its chest the words "Execute Qaddafi" were emblazoned.

Rebels from the town and army forces who defected from the regime to join them largely consolidated control of the town on February 24, after an army unit that remained loyal to Col Qaddafi opened fire on a mosque where residents - some armed with hunting rifles - had been holding a sit-in. There were reports from doctors of at least 10 deaths in the fighting.

That night, in a speech in Tripoli, Col Qaddafi scolded the town. "Shame on you, people of Zawiya, control your children," he said.

"They are loyal to bin Laden," he said of those involved in the uprising. "What do you have to do with bin Laden, people of Zawiya? They are exploiting young people … I insist it is bin Laden."