ZAWIYA, Libya >> Libyan rebels in pickup trucks mounted with weapons and troops loyal to Moammar Gadhafi battled in the streets of Zawiya today, a day after opposition forces pushed from the western mountains into the strategic city in their most dramatic advance in months.
Pro-Gadhafi snipers shot at rebels from an overpass deep in the city, while loud booms echoed and a column of heavy black smoke rose over the outskirts. Dozens of civilians crammed in cars with their belongings fled the city. In one car, four women cried desperately, as their male driver called out:
“There are dead people in our neighborhood.”
An Associated Press reporter in Zawiya saw some of the fiercest battles on Ghanam Street, a main road leading into downtown from the south of the city. Pickup trucks sped along it from the city center, ferrying the wounded and dead, and piling them into ambulances that wailed on their way out of Zawiya.
The city of 200,000 just 30 miles west of Tripoli rose up against the regime shortly after the revolt against Gadhafi began in February. But Gadhafi’s forces crushed opposition in the city in a long and bloody siege in March. Many rebel fighters from Zawiya fled into the farmlands surrounding the city and western mountains further away, waiting for the right time to join in a new offensive to retake Zawiya.
Zawiya had been a key target for western mountain rebels and some of those who fled the city earlier were among the forces that advanced on the city Saturday.
“There were sleeping cells of rebels inside Zawiya,” Abdel-Bassit Abu Riyak, a rebel fighter in Zawiya, told the AP.
He said that when the fighters in the western mountains arrived to Zawiya, the cell rose up and helped to attack the Gadhafi troops.
“Freedom, freedom,” chanted a group of men greeting rebels inside Zawiya. One of those in the crowd rolled up his pants to show black-and-blue bruises he said came from a beating by pro-Gadhafi forces who have been in control of the city for months.
If the rebels can seize back control of Zawiya and hold it, that would strain Gadhafi’s troops, which have been hammered for months by NATO airstrikes. Defending Zawiya is key for the regime but could require bringing in better trained forces who are currently ensuring its hold over Tripoli or fighting rebels on fronts further east.
“From March until last night, we felt fear. But when the rebels came, we were really happy,” said Rabih Aboul-Gheit, an accountant in Zawiya.
A group of about 200 exuberant rebel fighters, advancing from the south, reached a bridge on Zawiya’s southwestern outskirts on Saturday, and some rebels pushed farther into the city’s central main square. They tore down the green flag of Gadhafi’s regime from a mosque minaret and put up two rebel flags. The AP reporter traveling with the rebels saw hundreds of residents rush into the streets, greeting the fighters piled into the backs of pickup trucks with chants of “God is great.”
The city was tense today, with the rebels erecting numerous checkpoints inside and on the road leading to it from the west. At one checkpoint, rebels fired in the air to restore order when a crowd gathered around a man who refused to open his car’s trunk for inspection.
“Fifth column, fifth column,” shouted the crowd, suggesting that the motorist may be a spy for Gadhafi forces. He eventually opened the trunk to show there was nothing suspicious.
Elsewhere in the city, eight African men were rounded up by the rebels and taken to the local intelligence building. Residents shouted “mercenaries” at them as they were driven across the city to the building, torched during fighting back in February.
The eight men were handcuffed and looked frightened as they sat inside the building. One of the eight, Nigerian Paul Joseph, said he was a worker in Zawiya and that he was arrested by rebels at his apartment.
“I left my seven-months pregnant wife behind in the flat,” said Joseph. “We have been trying to get out of Zawiya, but could not.”
Outside Zawiya, civilian cars were stopped at checkpoints and searched. Fighter Abdel-Monem Mohammed said he confiscated nine automatic weapons
“No civilians are allowed to carry weapons,” he told the AP.
A total death toll was impossible to verify during the height of the chaotic fighting, but Mohammed said Gadhfai troops struck a mosque in the city center killing eight people and injuring 25. An AP reporter saw the bodies of two people brought back in pick up trucks from the front line.
With the arrival of the western mountain rebel force, stories of life in Zawiya over the past few months began to trickle out.
Hossam Hawissa, 28, said he worked as a lawyer there before life came to a “standstill.” He said Gadhafi forces set up a checkpoint in front of his house, stole his laptop and money.
“They would pat me down every time I left my house,” he said.
Fighting erupted late Saturday on the road leading to Zawiya, close to the Tunisian border. It forced a convoy of foreign journalists who had just crossed the border and were heading to Tripoli to turn back to Tunisia.
Libya’s border with the Mediterranean Sea is populated with its major cities and towns from the Tunisian border to the Egyptian border. The eastern part of the country is now firmly in Libyan rebel control, with Benghazi acting as its de factor capital.
The east’s main front line is at the strategic oil terminal of Brega which has passed back and forth many times between rebel and regime control.
The front line of Brega is nearly 500 miles west of the fighting Zawiya.
According to a rebel spokesman in the east, Gadhafi troops blew up a storage tank filled with crude oil as rebels continued to make progress in capturing Brega.
“We have control of all the residential compounds of Brega and we’re clashing with Gadhafi troops in the industrial town,” said rebel spokesman Mohammed al-Zwawi.
Brega is a wide strip of desert made up of two residential units about six miles apart, followed by the oil refineries near the port on the Mediterranean Sea.
About 125 miles southwest of Benghazi, it fell under rebel control briefly in March, but was recaptured by Gadhafi’s forces shortly afterward.
Whoever controls Brega’s strategic terminal controls the bulk of oil distribution from the country’s main fields.
The journalists were traveling with Libyan government minders to the Rixos hotel in the capital, where foreign reporters have been covering Gadhafi’s government. The minders dropped them off at the Tunisian border because they decided it was too dangerous to continue traveling and made no further plans to try to take them into Tripoli.
Associated Press correspondent Dario Lopez contributed to this report from Tripoli, Libya.