Libyan Rebels Reach Port City, But Can They Hold It?

Libyan rebels have reached the important port city of Zawiyah, where they are engaged in fierce clashes with government forces. Zawiyah is the site of Libya's sole remaining refinery and it's on the road to Tunisia. If the rebels hold it, they will control the port, the refinery and one of Libya's main roads. Guest host John Ydstie gets the latest on the fighting from NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Libya.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie. In Libya, rebel fighters have broken through to Zawiyah, a key city along the country's western Mediterranean coast. At only 30 miles from Tripoli, Zawiyah is the closest the rebels have gotten to the capital city since the uprising began almost six months ago. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joins us from Benghazi in the rebel-held eastern part of Libya. Lourdes, give us the latest on the fighting in Zawiyah and the Libyan government's response to that fighting.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, rebel forces are in the city center of Zawiyah. We've seen images of them hoisting the rebel flags off of minarets in celebration, but they are not in control of the whole city and far from it. We're really not clear how much territory they actually own now. There are still clashes going on there. Gadhafi's forces are still there. But that said, this is a major advance, John, by the rebels from the western mountains who have now made their way down to the coast. Many of the rebels, who are spearheading this assault, are from Zawiyah originally. They fled to the mountains after the uprising in that city was brutally crushed by Gadhafi's forces earlier in the year. So, they have a vested interest in getting control of Zawiyah. Most of the residents there - I've been to Zawiyah before - are sympathetic to the rebel cause, making it easier for the rebels to hold the city. But that will be key. Can the rebels keep Zawiyah? Gadhafi's forces are now fighting on multiple fronts in the east and the west. So, Gadhafi's forces are under a lot of pressure now. This is a really major shift in the dynamics. The rebels are on the offensive, they're gaining ground. But this city is key and there is bound to be more fighting by Gadhafi's troops. Gadhafi will not want to let go of it. In Tripoli, the regime is denying that the rebels have even entered Zawiyah, but we know eyewitness accounts say otherwise.

YDSTIE: And why is Zawiyah so important?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's location. It's on the doorstep of Tripoli. It also straddles the road to the border to Tunisia. It's also the site of the last refinery under Gadhafi's control. There is an enormous fuel crisis in western Libya. Losing the refinery is going to make keeping Gadhafi's troops mobile very difficult. And now getting supplies, food, basically everything that comes in from Tunisia is going to be next to impossible while the rebels have control of that road. And we know that right now there is no traffic going in and out of that road because of the fighting in Zawiyah.

YDSTIE: There are some reports of fighting in other parts of the country too. What's the situation?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All the fronts are active right now, and this was part of the coordinated rebel plan to encircle the capital, Tripoli, the seat of Gadhafi's control, and essentially cut it off. The other key battleground that is also in the western mountains is the city of Gharyan. That lies on the road to the south of Tripoli where Tripoli gets its supplies from. So, rebels are also in there battling for control. So, what we're seeing is all the major crossroads are now contested. There's fighting in Misrata, there's fighting in Brega. So, Gadhafi's forces are spread out across the country and they're having to battle on many, many fronts.

YDSTIE: And what does that mean for the capital, Tripoli?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, if the rebels can hold their positions - if - it means Gadhafi is surrounded. To the east, you have Misrata under rebel control; to the south, you have Gharyan, which is being fought over; to the west, you have Zawiyah, which the rebels are inside of. So, Gadhafi is on the defensive. But the big caveat to all this, we know the rebels aren't particularly well-supplied. They aren't well-trained; they've lost ground before. We have to see if they can hold their positions. The main part of this battle plan for taking Tripoli counts on Tripoli rising up to help them. Will the residents of Tripoli do that? There's no sign of that yet. Will that be enough? We don't know yet.

YDSTIE: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reporting from Libya. Thank you very much, Lourdes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

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