Fighters In Libya's West Mostly Cut Off From Outside

An armed resident makes a victory sign in the main square in Zawiya, Libya, on Feb. 27. Western Libya has been all but sealed off to everyone but residents and soldiers.

An armed resident makes a victory sign in the main square in Zawiya, Libya, on Feb. 27. Western Libya has been all but sealed off to everyone but residents and soldiers. Ben Curtis/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Ben Curtis/AP

In eastern Libya, forces loyal to leader Moammar Gadhafi and anti-government troops have battled back and forth along the Mediterranean coast.

But the situation is different in western Libya, where government soldiers are surrounding individual towns and cities, with rebels holed up inside. It has been little covered by the Western media because the area is all but sealed off to everyone but residents and soldiers.

In Misrata, a city of 300,000 about 100 miles from the capital, Tripoli, a rebel fighter who said his name was Ahmed watched other young men learn how to use guns.

"I am helping [the] group starting preparing for the next fight," the 30-year-old said by phone. "We have some old people — they teach the young men how to use the weapons."

Ahmed said Gadhafi's army has been trying to gain control of Misrata for a week, using tanks and naval gunboats out on the Mediterranean. He said his group of fighters killed three of Gadhafi's men. Based on a cell phone they took from a dead soldier's pocket, Ahmed said he believes the man was hired to come to Libya from elsewhere.

Map of Libya

"I don't know what the area code is — 00213 — but they get his cell phone and his family start calling from that area; 00213. Some people say Algeria, but I don't have time to check it," Ahmed said.

Algeria's country code is 213.

A Murky Picture

From the remote village of Zintan, in the desert 150 miles south of Tripoli, a rebel fighter named Issa said by phone that Gadhafi's forces have been in back-and-forth battles there for several days.

"Five times the army tried to surround the city, and five times they went running," Issa said. "But last night was by far the bloodiest battle yet. We think they'll attack again — maybe not by land, because it's not flat here. I think they may come with airstrikes."

The true picture in western Libya has been difficult to pin down. Human-rights groups have expressed alarm about reports that the military is killing civilians in large numbers. Gadhafi's government says it's rooting out terrorists.

Maybe the biggest battleground over the weekend and into Monday has been Zawiya, a city within 30 miles of Tripoli that rebels took early in their campaign. The military has set up roadblocks around the city.

But Martin Fletcher, associate editor of The Times of London, found a way through Sunday in a taxi from Tripoli. He said he came across a scene of destruction — burning vehicles and buildings, trees uprooted and people recovering from serious injuries in a hospital.

  • Libyan rebels watch smoke rising from an oil pipe just outside the town of Ras Lanuf, where many anti-regime fighters retreated after artillery and airstrikes from government troops Wednesday.
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    Libyan rebels watch smoke rising from an oil pipe just outside the town of Ras Lanuf, where many anti-regime fighters retreated after artillery and airstrikes from government troops Wednesday.
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  • Refugees who fled Libya bathe in the Choucha refugee camp, near the Tunisian border town of Ras Jdir on Tuesday. The Red Cross and the United Arab Emirates plan to build two new camps on Tunisia's border. An estimated 100,000 mainly foreign migrants have crossed from Libya into Tunisia since Feb. 20, Tunisian officials said.
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    Refugees who fled Libya bathe in the Choucha refugee camp, near the Tunisian border town of Ras Jdir on Tuesday. The Red Cross and the United Arab Emirates plan to build two new camps on Tunisia's border. An estimated 100,000 mainly foreign migrants have crossed from Libya into Tunisia since Feb. 20, Tunisian officials said.
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  • An injured rebel fighter is brought to a hospital in Ras Lanuf on Tuesday.
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    An injured rebel fighter is brought to a hospital in Ras Lanuf on Tuesday.
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  • Rebel fighters run for cover as an air force jet drops a bomb on the outskirts of the oil-rich town of Ras Lanuf on Tuesday.
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    Rebel fighters run for cover as an air force jet drops a bomb on the outskirts of the oil-rich town of Ras Lanuf on Tuesday.
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  • Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi arrives at a hotel to give television interviews in Tripoli on Tuesday.
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    Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi arrives at a hotel to give television interviews in Tripoli on Tuesday.
    Ben Curtis/AP
  • Volunteers work on anti-Gadhafi banners at the newly set-up media center in Benghazi, Libya, on Monday. Libyan activists provide technical support and documents to journalists.
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    Volunteers work on anti-Gadhafi banners at the newly set-up media center in Benghazi, Libya, on Monday. Libyan activists provide technical support and documents to journalists.
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  • A mourner kneels over the grave of a relative recently killed in a battle between rebel fighters and forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for control over the town of Bin Jawad, Libya, on Monday.
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    A mourner kneels over the grave of a relative recently killed in a battle between rebel fighters and forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for control over the town of Bin Jawad, Libya, on Monday.
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  • Rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an air force fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf, Libya.
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    Rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an air force fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf, Libya.
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  • A rebel fighter shouts from his anti-aircraft machine gun position as he sees a fighter jet flying over at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf on Sunday.
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    A rebel fighter shouts from his anti-aircraft machine gun position as he sees a fighter jet flying over at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf on Sunday.
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  • Thousands of pro-Gadahfi Libyans gather in Tripoli's Green Square on Sunday to celebrate victories over rebel forces.
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    Thousands of pro-Gadahfi Libyans gather in Tripoli's Green Square on Sunday to celebrate victories over rebel forces.
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  • Moroccan expatriates arrive Sunday in the northern Moroccan port of Tangiers on a boat from the rebel-held city of Benghazi, Libya. Some 4,000 expats were repatriated by Moroccan authorities.
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    Moroccan expatriates arrive Sunday in the northern Moroccan port of Tangiers on a boat from the rebel-held city of Benghazi, Libya. Some 4,000 expats were repatriated by Moroccan authorities.
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  • A rebel fighter stands at a checkpoint Saturday in Ras Lanuf, where up to 10 people were killed and more than 20 wounded in clashes between opposition forces and Gadhafi loyalists.
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    A rebel fighter stands at a checkpoint Saturday in Ras Lanuf, where up to 10 people were killed and more than 20 wounded in clashes between opposition forces and Gadhafi loyalists.
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  • Libyan rebels gather for prayer on March 4. Loyalist forces have launched a fresh air strike on opposition territory in the east, while pumped-up opposition fighters pushed forward the frontline against Moammar Gadhafi's regime.
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    Libyan rebels gather for prayer on March 4. Loyalist forces have launched a fresh air strike on opposition territory in the east, while pumped-up opposition fighters pushed forward the frontline against Moammar Gadhafi's regime.
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  • A Libyan rebel fighter fires his rifle in the air at Ajdabiya's west gate on Friday.
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    A Libyan rebel fighter fires his rifle in the air at Ajdabiya's west gate on Friday.
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  • Thousands of Bangladeshi refugees who fled Libya stand in a miles-long line as they walk to a refugee camp in Tunisia on Friday.
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    Thousands of Bangladeshi refugees who fled Libya stand in a miles-long line as they walk to a refugee camp in Tunisia on Friday.
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  • Trash fires burn at a border area in Tunisia on Thursday, where migrant workers from Libya are living in squalid conditions. Tunisia's situation is quickly turning into a humanitarian emergency as the country is overwhelmed with refugees.
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    Trash fires burn at a border area in Tunisia on Thursday, where migrant workers from Libya are living in squalid conditions. Tunisia's situation is quickly turning into a humanitarian emergency as the country is overwhelmed with refugees.
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  • President Obama said on Thursday that he has authorized the use of U.S. military aircraft to move Egyptian refugees fleeing Libya to Tunisia.
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    President Obama said on Thursday that he has authorized the use of U.S. military aircraft to move Egyptian refugees fleeing Libya to Tunisia.
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  • Libyan rebels in the northeastern city of Ajdabiya celebrate reports that the counterattacks led by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi have failed, on March 2.
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    Libyan rebels in the northeastern city of Ajdabiya celebrate reports that the counterattacks led by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi have failed, on March 2.
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  • Thousands in Libya wait to cross into Tunisia via the Ras Jedir border crossing on Wednesday. The UN refugees agency has made a plea to end the gridlock at the Tunisia border.
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    Thousands in Libya wait to cross into Tunisia via the Ras Jedir border crossing on Wednesday. The UN refugees agency has made a plea to end the gridlock at the Tunisia border.
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  • Gadhafi drives away in an electric golf cart after speaking in Tripoli on Wednesday after addressing supporters and the media.
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    Gadhafi drives away in an electric golf cart after speaking in Tripoli on Wednesday after addressing supporters and the media.
    Ben Curtis/AP
  • Defected Libyan soldiers stand guard outside an army base in the eastern town of Ajdabiya, Libya, on Tuesday. Eastern cities are free from government control, but fighting continues around the capital Tripoli, controlled by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
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    Defected Libyan soldiers stand guard outside an army base in the eastern town of Ajdabiya, Libya, on Tuesday. Eastern cities are free from government control, but fighting continues around the capital Tripoli, controlled by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
    Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP
  • Rebels celebrate Sunday in the streets of Benghazi, no longer under the control of Gadhafi's government.
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    Rebels celebrate Sunday in the streets of Benghazi, no longer under the control of Gadhafi's government.
    Hussein Malla/AP
  • A Libyan insurgent soldier displays heavy-caliber ammunition, allegedly intended to be used against civilians in Benghazi on Sunday.
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    A Libyan insurgent soldier displays heavy-caliber ammunition, allegedly intended to be used against civilians in Benghazi on Sunday.
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  • Crowds celebrate in Benghazi on Saturday, still demanding Gadhafi's removal from power.
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    Crowds celebrate in Benghazi on Saturday, still demanding Gadhafi's removal from power.
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  • Libyans stomp on a defaced billboard of Gadhafi during a demonstration against his regime in the city of Tobruk on Saturday.
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    Libyans stomp on a defaced billboard of Gadhafi during a demonstration against his regime in the city of Tobruk on Saturday.
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  • A Libyan border guard walks through an empty customs hall on the Libya-Egypt border on Thursday.
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    A Libyan border guard walks through an empty customs hall on the Libya-Egypt border on Thursday.
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"People [are] on respirators with severe head wounds; bullets to the abdomen; shrapnel all up their sides," he said.

'Like The Cavalry Riding To Relief'

Just as the Libyan government has been accused of twisting the truth, Fletcher found some evidence of that among the rebels.

"We had heard before we went, for instance, that the hospital had been fired on. We asked the doctors and they said no, that wasn't true," Fletcher said. "We were told by some of the rebels that the army had gone in and abducted wounded rebels. Again, we asked the doctors and they said it wasn't true."

The doctors did confirm that 30 people had died over the past few days in intense fighting. Fletcher left Zawiya on Sunday with a lasting impression of the rebels he met: a group of a men digging in, and mostly cut off from the outside world.

"They greeted us like the cavalry riding to the relief. They were beside themselves with excitement," he said. "Here were people who could finally tell the world of their plight, which is really important to them because if no one is watching, the government can do what it wants."

The government seems to have cut off Internet and phone service to much of western Libya. Most phone calls don't go through.

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