Saturday 24 February 2018

Gaddafi forces surround key town as rebels near Tripoli

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Photo: Reuters
Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Photo: Reuters

Sherine El Madany

Troops loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi were surrounding the city of Zlitan, just 50km east of Tripoli, yesterday, rebels said, after fighting broke out there that could open up the coastal road to the capital.

Sporadic clashes between Gaddafi's forces and the rebels continued in Zlitan, 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 at 22 rebels killed.

"Zlitan is still surrounded by Gaddafi troops and they are threatening the residents to surrender or have their women raped by mercenaries," spokesman 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.

Gaddafi's forces also shelled for the first time the UNESCO world heritage-listed city of Gadamis, 600km southwest of Tripoli on the Tunisia and Algerian border overnight, opening a new front in the five-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 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," he said.

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 verified and the government did not comment.

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

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

The US accused some Nato allies on Friday 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 US, once more, to make up the difference," US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said in a valedictory speech at Nato headquarters in Brussels.

One possible exit strategy for the beleaguered Gaddafi is through Turkey. Turkish PM Tayyip Erdogan said this weekend that his country had offered a "guarantee" to the Libyan leader if he were to leave Libya, but said Ankara had received no answer.

Sunday Independent

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