Anti-Gaddafi forces enter the city of Zawiyah, a key strategic target just 30 miles from the embattled dictator’s stronghold in Tripoli.
Libyan rebels say they have taken control of the town of Zawiyah after making a dramatic advance that has put them with 30 miles of Tripoli.
Opponents of the country’s embattled leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, hoised their flag in the centre of Zawiyah and appeared to be unopposed as they took control of the key strategic target.
There is no sign that Tripoli is under immediate threat from a rebel attack, and heavily armed pro-Gaddafi forces still lie between Zawiyah and the capital.
But the advance puts rebel forces in their strongest position since the uprising against Gaddafi rule began in February.
They now control the Mediterranean coast to the east and west of Tripoli, while a Nato naval blockade means sea routes to the capital are closed and there is little but empty desert to the south of Gaddafi’s last remaining stronghold.
Nothing is certain yet and there is no confirmation about who has control of Zawiyah because the situation changes every day. Nato spokesman
Rebels from the Western Mountains region south of Zawiyah drove forward into Zawiyah late on Saturday, encountering little sustained resistance from Gaddafi’s forces.
Near Zawiyah’s central market early on Sunday, about 50 rebel fighters triumphantly shouted “Allahu Akbar!” or “God is greatest.” The red, black and green rebel flag was flying from a shop.
Rebel fighters said there were still forces loyal to Gaddafi in the town, including snipers, and one said Gaddafi’s forces were still in control of the oil refinery on the northern edge of Zawiyah – the only one still functioning in western Libya.
Rebels said the capital was their next target once Zawiyah was fully under their control.
Further west along the coastal highway, near the main border crossing into Tunisia, residents said late on Saturday there were heavy clashes between rebels and government troops but that Gaddafi’s forces still controlled the crossing.
In Tripoli, government officials on Saturday denied Zawiyah was under rebel control, saying a small force of anti-Gaddafi fighters had launched a “suicide mission” that was quickly repelled.
In the Tunisian capital, where many Libyans have fled from the fighting in their home country, Libyans came out on to the streets late on Saturday to celebrate after hearing unconfirmed rumours Gaddafi and his family had fled.
But there was no indication of any change in Tripoli. State television said Gaddafi’s supporters were heading to his Bab al-Aziziyah compound to show their support.
In Brussels, the NATO alliance said it was monitoring what it called a “fluid” situation on the ground.
“Pro and anti-Gaddafi forces have been engaging each other. Nothing is certain yet and there is no confirmation about who has control of Zawiyah because the situation changes every day,” a NATO official said.
Rebels, backed by NATO warplanes, have been trying since February to end Gaddafi’s 41-year rule in the bloodiest of the “Arab Spring” uprisings.
The conflict has been largely deadlocked, but the rebels’ advance to the Mediterranean coast near Tripoli represents a major shift in the balance of forces.