Anti-Gaddafi troops bombarded by planes, tanks in fight for city
Troops loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi stepped up their fightback against opposition forces last night, exercising a level of brutality not yet seen in the conflict.
Pro-Gaddafi troops used tanks and aircraft to bombard the rebel-held town of Zawiyah, 30 miles from the capital Tripoli, vowing that it was a "final battle". There were mixed reports about whether Zawiyah had fallen, but witnesses reported that the town centre had been "flattened" by the onslaught.
"Fighting is still going on now. Gaddafi's forces are using tanks. There are also sporadic air strikes," said one resident. "The situation here is very bad. Many buildings have been destroyed, including mosques. About 40 to 50 tanks are taking part in the bombardment but they could not reach the centre of the town, which is still in the control of the revolutionaries."
The battle for Zawiyah came as defectors from Libya's regular forces finally appeared to be stepping forward to take over from enthusiastic but inexperienced rebels fighting daily battles with well-armed pro- Gaddafi troops in eastern Libya. At a checkpoint at Brega, there was evidence of trained soldiers, dressed in fatigues and combat gear, in a place normally patrolled by trigger-happy rebel fighters, some handling weapons for the first time.
Four battalions comprising several thousand soldiers have moved from Libya's second city, Benghazi, towards the front in the last two days, said Jelel Suleiman, a marine. "The army is in charge," he said, a claim repeated by several soldiers. "The army is in front, the volunteers are at the back."
Anti-regime forces will hope that the soldiers' decision to mobilise in support of the rebels could be a critical turning point. They had struggled to defend their hard-won gains in eastern Libya, which last night was under rebel control as far as Ras Lanuf, the site of the country's largest oil refinery.
A joint British and US statement last night said a plan for a no-fly zone, as requested by many of the rebels, was among ideas being discussed. Action would also include surveillance and enforcement of the arms embargo.
The battle for Zawiyah was part of a big counter-attack against the resistance movement, which ousted the regime in the east more than two weeks ago -- a popular uprising that cost hundreds of lives.
In recent days, Gaddafi has sent in heavy artillery, tanks and warplanes against the untrained volunteers, some of whom do not even have rifles.
The rebels initially claimed some victories and pushed forward, buoyed by little more than high spirits. In sharp contrast, the morale among loyalist forces is said to be low. Their commanders are understood to have executed 20 officers in Sirte, Colonel Gaddafi's stronghold, for refusing to fight the revolutionaries last week. But the rebels' morale took a battering when they suffered a heavy defeat in Bin Jawad, a town close to Sirte. Nevertheless, there is now a recognition among opposition commanders that their fighters are badly in need of leadership and a strategy.
Major-General Ahmed el-Ghatrani, an army defector now serving with the opposition, said his soldiers were preparing to join the fight. "It is time to go to work now," he added. "The armed forces will advance now to lead the fight. From there, the youth will continue."