ZAWIYAH — Libyan rebels hoisted their flag in the centre of this town near the capital yesterday after the most dramatic advance in months cut off Muammar Gaddafi’s capital from its main link to the outside world.
The swift rebel advance on the town of Zawiyah, about 50km west of Tripoli, is likely to deal a psychological blow to Gaddafi’s supporters and also cuts the coastal highway to Tunisia which keeps the capital supplied with food and fuel.
But, there was no sign Tripoli was under immediate threat from a rebel attack: heavily-armed pro-Gaddafi forces still lie between Zawiyah and the capital.
Rebels from the Western Mountains region south of this Mediterranean coast town dashed forward into Zawiyah late on Saturday, encountering little sustained resistance from pro-Gaddafi forces.
Near Zawiyah’s central produce market early yesterday, about 50 rebel fighters were milling around and triumphantly shouting “Allahu Akbar!” or “God is greatest.”
The red, black and green rebel flag was flying from a shop.
Rebel fighters told Reuters there were still forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in the town, including snipers. Artillery and machine gun fire could still be heard.
Rebels said the capital was their next target once Zawiyah was fully under their control. One rebel fighter smiled as he pointed to a road sign marking the highway from Zawiyah to Tripoli.
“I’m 1 000% sure we’re going to take over Zawiyah today (yesterday) and then move on to Tripoli,” said Bin Jaffin Ali (34), a shopkeeper turned rebel fighter.
In Tripoli, government officials on Saturday denied Zawiyah was under rebel control, saying a small force of anti-Gaddafi fighters had launched a “suicide mission” that was quickly repelled.
Zawiyah is “absolutely under our control”, government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim told reporters. Control of the highway to Tunisia could determine the outcome of the conflict because without it, the capital is effectively besieged.
There was no traffic moving along the highway, and rebel fighters there said it was closed.