Rebels say Tripoli encircled; U.S. says Scud fired

ZAWIYAH, Libya, (Reuters) – Libyan rebels said they  had seized a second strategic town near Tripoli within 24 hours,  completing the encirclement of the capital in the boldest  advances of their six-month-old uprising against Muammar  Gaddafi.

Rebel fighters wait at a checkpoint near a sign pointing to Tripoli in the coastal town of Zawiyah, 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli, August 14, 2011. REUTERS/Bob Strong

A U.S. defense official also said yesterday that Gaddafi’s  forces had fired a Scud missile for the first time since the  uprising against his rule began six months ago, but it landed in  the desert and injured no one.

The missile was fired on Sunday morning from a location  about 50 miles (80 km) east of Sirte, Gaddafi’s home town, and  landed east of the coastal oil town of Brega, the official said  in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity.

It was unclear what Gaddafi might have been targeting, the  official said, without speculating about the motives behind a  missile launch that came in the wake of recent rebel gains that  have increased pressure on the Libyan leader.

In a barely audible telephone call to state television  overnight, a defiant and apparently isolated Gaddafi called on  his followers to fight rebels he referred to as “rats”.

Gaddafi’s forces fired mortars and rockets at the coastal  town of Zawiyah a day after rebels captured its centre in a  thrust that severed the vital coastal highway from Tripoli to  the Tunisian border, a potential turning point in the war.

Rebels said they captured the town of Garyan south of  Tripoli yesterday. That could not be immediately verified, but  if true it would cut off the other main route to the capital.

“Garyan is fully in the hands of the revolutionaries,” a  rebel spokesman, Abdulrahman, said by telephone.

“Gaddafi has been isolated. He has been cut off from the  outside world.”

Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim acknowledged in remarks  broadcast on state television that rebel fighters were in  Garyan. “There are still armed gangs inside the city. We are  able to drive them out,” he said.

A U.N. envoy arrived in neighbouring Tunisia, where sources  say rebels and representatives of the government have been holed  up on the island resort of Djerba for negotiations. The envoy,  Abdel Elah al-Khatib, told Reuters he would meet “Libyan  personalities residing in Tunisia” to discuss the conflict.

Talks could signal the endgame of a civil war that has drawn  in the NATO alliance and emerged as one of the bloodiest  confrontations in the wave of unrest sweeping the Arab world.

Rebels may still lack the manpower for an all-out assault on  Tripoli, but are hoping their encirclement of the capital will  bring down Gaddafi’s government or inspire an uprising. In the  past, however, they have frequently failed to hold gains, and a  fightback by Gaddafi troops could yet break the siege.

Gaddafi’s government denies talks with rebels are taking  place. His spokesman dismissed reports of negotiations about the  Libyan leader’s future as part of a “media war” against him.

“The leader is here in Libya, fighting for the freedom of  our nation. He will not leave Libya,” spokesman Ibrahim said.

A senior Gaddafi security official, Nasser al-Mabrouk  Abdullah, arrived in Cairo with nine relatives, telling Egyptian  officials he was on holiday. Rebels hoped that would signal more  defections from a crumbling government.

Residents of the capital also remain defiant.

Makhjoub Muftah, a school teacher who has signed up as a  gun-toting pro-Gaddafi volunteer, like many others seemed to  think a rebel advance into Tripoli was a remote possibility.

“I wish they would march into Tripoli. I wish,” he said,  daring the rebels. “They will all die.”

SITUATION
TRANSFORMED

After months of only incremental gains in their struggle  against Gaddafi, rebel advances in the last two days have  transformed the battle, beginning with the capture of the town  of Zawiyah which cut Tripoli’s main lifeline road west.

Reuters reporters in the town say Gaddafi’s forces still  hold an oil refinery and have sniper positions on rooftops, but  the highway linking Tripoli to the Tunisian border is shut.

Nevertheless, a U.S. military official, speaking on  condition of anonymity, told Reuters the advance in Zawiyah  could not yet be seen as a “game changer”, stressing that the  rebels did not have complete control of the town.

At a hospital, medics said six rebels had died and 26 were  wounded. They also said firing by Gaddafi forces killed three  civilians. One man was shot in the head and a 15-year-old girl  died of shrapnel wounds.

A woman lay in the hospital unconscious with shrapnel wounds  to her neck. Her brother, who gave his name as Waleed, stood  over her holding a drip, his T-shirt drenched in blood. He said  Gaddafi’s forces were “shooting at us indiscriminately”.

Zawiyah’s residents have risen up twice in the past, only  for their revolts to be crushed by Gaddafi loyalists. But this  is the first time rebel fighters advancing from the mountains in  the south have reached the town, incorporating it into a front  that now cuts off the vital coast road.

Gaddafi’s green flag still flew at the coastal highway’s  border crossing with Tunisia yesterday, but the steady traffic  that once supplied Gaddafi-held areas had slowed to a trickle.  Passengers said the road was only open for about 70 km (44  miles), a third of the way to Tripoli.

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