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Fighting in Zawiyah shuts Libya road to Tripoli

Fighting between Libyan troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi and rebels broke out in the town of Zawiyah on...

Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi gestures as he enters the U.N. headquarters for the UN General Assembly on 23 September 2009. AFP

Fighting between Libyan troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi and rebels broke out in the town of Zawiyah on Saturday, a resident said, shutting the coastal highway that links the capital Tripoli with Tunisia.

A Reuters reporter traveling via the town, which lies just 50 km (30 miles) outside of Tripoli, was diverted via backstreets with a police escort. He said the highway was deserted except for lots of soldiers, police and armed men in civilian clothes.

"The situation is very bad in Zawiyah. There's been fierce fighting since the morning between the Gaddafi forces and the rebels," said the resident, who gave only his first name, Mohammed, fearing reprisals.

Five months since Gaddafi's forces crushed a popular uprising against his four-decade rule that transformed into an armed rebellion, Libya's civil war is in stalemate.

Three months of bombings by NATO war planes against Libyan military targets have failed to unseat Gaddafi or enable the rebels to launch an offensive on his territory in Tripoli.

The rebels control the east of Libya, the western city of Misrata and the range of mountains near the border with Tunisia. They are seeking to encircle the capital and cut it off, an aim that would be hugely advanced if they manage to capture Zawiyah.

The highway has been used throughout the four-month-old conflict by Gaddafi's officials to reach the outside world including fleeing defectors -- and by trucks bringing in food and other supplies to territory under Gaddafi's control.

Pro-Gaddafi troops encircled the city of Zlitan, 160 km east of Tripoli, on Saturday, rebels said, after fighting broke out there that could also open up the coastal road to the capital.

Sporadic clashes between Gaddafi's forces and the rebels continued in the city, a rebel spokesman said, after the rebels took control of some parts of it. He said the situation was calmer than on Friday and the toll remained 22 rebels killed.

"Gaddafi's forces are threatening the residents to surrender or have their women raped by mercenaries," Ahmed Bani said.

It was not possible to independently verify the rebels' claim. There was no immediate comment from Gaddafi's government.

Zlitan is one of three towns that are largely government controlled between the rebel-held Misrata and the capital. Were it to fall, it could allow the anti-Gaddafi uprising to spread from Misrata, the biggest rebel outpost in western Libya, to Gaddafi's stronghold in Tripoli.

DIPLOMACY FALTERS, FIGHTING INCREASES

World powers have given mixed signals on how the war might play out, with Russia trying to mediate reconciliation. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday he had offered a "guarantee" to Gaddafi if he left Libya, but received no reply.

Gaddafi has refused to step down, describing the rebels as al Qaeda terrorists and Western intervention as an oil grab.

As diplomacy falters, several new battle fronts have opened.

Gaddafi's forces also shelled for the first time the world heritage-listed city of Gadamis, 600 km (370 miles) southwest of Tripoli on the Tunisia and Algerian border, overnight, opening a new front in the four-month civil war.

Rebels said the oasis town, with a population of about 7,000 people, mainly Berber, was under attack after an anti-government protest in the old Roman city on Wednesday.

"Gadamis is being shelled by Gaddafi forces, according to witnesses in the town," spokesman Juma Ibrahim said from the rebel-held town of Zintan in the Western Mountains. "This is a retaliation for anti-regime protests."

The old town was de-populated by Gaddafi in the 1990s and its inhabitants moved into modern buildings. It was not clear if the attack hit the old town, a labyrinth of narrow, underground passages and houses known as the "Pearl of the Desert."

The accounts from Gadamis could not be independently verified and the government did not comment.

Libyan state TV reported NATO bombing raids on Saturday, on the inland central town of Jafra. There was no confirmation from NATO.

In the besieged port city of Misrata, a doctor at the Hekma hospital said 31 people were killed and 110 wounded in shelling by Gaddafi forces on Friday. A rebel said Misrata was now quiet.

"Today there is complete quiet in the city after the shelling continued late last night," a rebel called Reda told Reuters by telephone. "But we expect bombardment at any time."

The United States accused some NATO allies of failing to pull their weight.

"The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country -- yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a valedictory speech at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Friday.

Gates's exasperation is echoed by rebels, who control the east of Libya and want the West to step up military support.

Fighting in Zawiyah shuts Libya road to Tripoli

Libya

Timeline

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