Last updated: August 14, 2011 5:13 pm

Libya rebels claim to hold Zawiya as regime fights on

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Libyan rebels have hoisted their flag in the centre of the town of Zawiya, a strategically important town that controls the main supply route linking Tripoli to the Tunisian border.

News agency reporters described the town centre as under rebel control, which if sustained would put further pressure on Colonel Muammer Gaddafi.

Rebel fighters have reportedly moved into the town to prepare for a further offensive towards Tripoli, around 50km east of Zawiya. But regime fighters, including snipers, continue to hold positions in the north of Zawiya.

The government in Tripoli has said it repelled the rebel advance. If rebels can hold and consolidate their control of the town, the fall of Zawiya would mark a decisive moment in the rebels’ six month battle against the regime in Tripoli, which depends on the road to Tunisia for supplies. “If it holds, this would stop trade supplies from Tunisia and Algeria, which would be really significant for the position of Tripoli,” said Oliver Miles, a former UK ambassador to Libya.

Zawiya is also the location of a government oil refinery, but the facility has probably stopped already or reduced its output because of rebel attacks on its supply pipelines.

Before any offensive on Tripoli, the first test will be the rebels’ ability to hold and replenish their new gains. Rebel fighters have previously launched incursions into the town, as well as other frontline targets, only to have to retreat in the face of counterattacks from pro-Gaddafi forces.

Insufficient supplies of ammunition have also forced rebels to abandon some of their gains. This weekend, rebels reportedly launched an offensive against another the town of Ghariyan, due south of the capital, in a bid to further ratchet up the stranglehold on the capital.

Ismail al-Sallabi, operational commander of one of the largest rebel armed units, last week said that a three-pronged attack against Col Gaddafi’s forces would be launched along the western, southern and eastern flanks of Tripoli, allowing rebel forces to start planning their final offensive on the capital.

Zawiya residents joined the revolt against Col Gaddafi in February but were put down by a bloody siege that allowed his forces to regain control of the vital supply route towards the Tunisian border in March. Rebels located in the western mountains of Nafusa have been making more progress to the west and south of the capital over the past couple of weeks.

The other front lines – around Misrata, which lies around 200km east of Tripoli, and the oil terminal of Brega, which lies 200km west of the rebels’ base in Benghazi – have been locked in stalemate. The civil rebel National Transitional Council has been distributing cash payments to the estimated 50,000 families living in these mountain regions, where banks have run out of money and shops are empty.

The NTC has been trying to boost its geographic reach of its emerging provision of government services. Plunged into crisis by the assassination of its military commander, the rebel council has reshuffled its cabinet in response to last month’s killing of General Abdul Fattah Younes. The NTC is also trying to bring under its control the ragtag units that make up the rebel brigades. ends

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