Libyan Rebels Keep Momentum Up In Zawiyah Battle

In Libya, rebel forces have made advances in their battle to unseat Moamar Gadhafi from power. After several days of fierce clashes, opposition fighters have taken the last refinery under Gadhafi's control. The coastal city of Zawiyah, 30 miles from the capital tripoli, is still being contested though.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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DAVID GREENE, host:

And I'm David Greene.

In Libya, rebel forces have made some major advances in their battle to unseat Moammar Gadhafi. After several days of fierce clashes, opposition fighters have taken over the only remaining oil refinery that Gadhafi had in his control. But the battle is still on for the coastal city of Zawiyah, 30 miles from the capital of Tripoli.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro was in Zawiyah and she sent this report.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: A hotel that was being held by Gadhafi's forces is burning. The rebels have fired tank rounds and rocket propelled grenades into it to dislodge loyalist fighters.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: After every volley of gunfire, the rebels shout: God is great.

(Soundbite of shouting)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thick black smoke billows over the city, obscuring the summer sun. This is a bitter urban battle and it's personal for those who are fighting it.

So I'm in the city center of Zawiyah and the fiercest battle right now that's happening is for the central square. This is the symbolic heart of the Zawiyah uprising. It's the place that the rebels held all those many months ago when they first stood up against Gadhafi and were then brutally crushed, and it's the place they want back more than anything.

Mr. ABDUL SALAM: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fighter Abdul Salam says they have control of most of Zawiya now. But the central square is where the uprising in this city began, and it's where it met its desperate end last March. And so it's almost hallowed ground for the fighters of Zawiyah.

During the initial uprising earlier this year, the rebels were surrounded in the square and couldn't get out, so they buried their dead in the park in the square and tended their wounded in the square's mosque. After Gadhafi's forces took it over, the regime razed the mosque and dug up the bodies, dumping them in a communal grave outside the city, trying to obliterate any traces of the rebel struggle.

Hundreds if not thousands of people were arrested; many young men fled and went into hiding. They are back now, with guns in their hands. Away from the battle zone, though, this city of 200,000 people is utterly and eerily empty now.

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The only sign of life on a long avenue is prayers blaring out from a mosque. If there are any faithful to hear the Quranic verses, they are well hidden behind the shuttered and locked homes. We are the only car moving down the street.

But while civilians have fled, there's no doubt the rebels now have momentum on their side here. This week, they scored an important victory, taking the oil refinery in Zawiyah.

This area is now completely under...

Mr. NOURI ABDUL MOLA: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...rebel control.

Mr. ABDUL MOLA: Yes, yes. That's it. All the refineries, Zawiyah(ph) refineries is now in our hands. (Unintelligible)...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is there damage to the refinery?

Mr. ABDUL MOLA: No, no, no, no. There's no damage. There's no damage inside.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rebel Nouri Abdul Mola says they took care to avoid hurting the plant's infrastructure. The rebels are now thinking about what comes after Gadhafi. They'll need places like this refinery to come on line quickly to fill the new government's coffers.

The rebels also now control up to the coastal town of Sabratha, about halfway to the border with Tunisia. And they've also seized the strategic city of Gharyan, to the north of Tripoli.

Rebel leader Colonel Juma Ibrahim says the time is almost right for a march on the capital.

Colonel JUMA IBRAHIM: Yes, I have contact with the rebels in Tajoura and Souk al-Juma and many places in Tripoli.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: These are areas that originally rose up against Gadhafi. The rebel force is counting on Tripoli's opposition to join the fight when the moment is ripe. It's only a matter of time, Juma says. The rebels are coming to the capital.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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