5 Mar 2011

Libya: Gaddafi forces and rebels battle for Zawiyah

Heavy fighting is raging between government forces and rebels for control of the western city of Zawiyah, while in the east anti-Gaddafi fighters are pushing on to the Colonel’s home town of Sirte.

Libyan government forces have surrounded the rebel-held town of Zawiyah (Reuters)

The fighting for the city of Zawiyah – western Libya’s most strategic city beyond Tripoli – has been intense.

More than 40 people are reported killed in the last 48 hours. A doctor at the city’s hospital told Channel 4 News by phone that children are among the dead.

Channel 4 News Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Rugman says government forces have now encircled Zawiyah.

Last weekend rebels in the city, joined by defectors from the Libyan army, were celebrating their freedom from Gaddafi in the main square. But they knew Gaddafi would try to take Zawiyah back.

'We ask everyone in the world to help us'
A doctor in the centre of Zawiyah said lots of people had been killed on both sides, writes Channel 4 News Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Rugman.

The fighting started at 1.45am this morning and lasted till 7am. The doctor said five government tanks had been destroyed, with three soldiers taken
prisoner, including one lieutenant. He put the death toll at 16 in all for today, and said he had seen three bodies himself.

"They attacked the hospital with machine guns," he said. "They shot at me and told me not to help. We had enough ammunition but not enough food and medicine –
especially baby food. We are surrounded. We ask everyone in the world to help us. We can eat even grass."

Another eye-witness said that she had seen an ambulance fired upon by the army. She confirmed that rebels had captured five tanks and destroyed them. She said she had seen eight dead soldiers lying around one tank.

The eye witness said at least 60 wounded people were in the hospital, with more at a mosque in the centre of town which is being used as a
makeshift clinic.

A captured tank commander in hospital had to be barricaded in a room to stop a crowd from lynching him.

A doctor said that a government forces sniper captured after he had been holding people hostage then deliberately shot himself in the head.

The government forces are believed to be led by Khamis Gaddafi, the son of the Libyan leader and head of the 32nd Brigade.

Channel 4 News Foreign Editor Lindsey Hilsum reports from Adjabiya that Colonel Gaddafi appears to be concentrating his best forces in the west of Libya at the moment, which is why the rebels in the east “have been having something of an easy time”.

Rebel forces say they are pushing west after driving out forces loyal to Gaddafi from the oil town of Ras Lanuf on Friday. But they have not really yet been challenged – that could come in the next few days as they approach Colonel Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte.

The fighting for Ras Lanuf was fierce. Some 25 people, mainly fighters, are thought to have died.

Today only a few rebels remained at the Ras Lanuf checkpoint, preparing ammunition and learning on the job.

It could be that these rebels are going to find it very difficult. They could see a lot worse fighting in the days to come. Lindsey Hilsum

Colonel Gaddafi’s tribe is base in Sirte, and the people there are likely to be totally loyal to him – and very heavily armed.

The rebels of eastern Libya are on the move. But unless rumoured negotiations with people in Sirte are successful, the worst fighting is yet to come.

There are also reports that Colonel Gaddafi’s forces are massing in the desert town of Sabah, and they may also be heading up to Sirte.

“It could be,” says Lindsey Hilsum, “that these rebels, who are getting very excited, are going to find it very difficult. They could see a lot worse fighting in the days to come.”