Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi yesterday urged Libyans to free the country from “NATO and traitors,” as rebels in the west began to strangle a major lifeline to his capital.
Shortly after his address, Libyan Minister of the Interior Nassr al-Mabrouk Abdullah arrived in Egypt with members of his family, official sources at Cairo airport said, amid reports that he was abandoning the Qaddafi.
Egyptian airport security officials said the minister arrived with nine members of his family, telling them he was on holiday.
Meanwhile, despite denials, officials from Qaddafi’s government were reported to be holding secret talks with rebels at a hotel in Tunisia on a possible resolution of the six-month-old civil war.
A dramatic advance on Saturday, witnessed by reporters, won the rebels control of the town of Zawiyah, 50km west of Tripoli on the coast, enabling them to halt food and fuel supplies from Tunisia to Qaddafi’s stronghold in the capital.
Tripoli was not under -immediate threat, but rebel forces are now in their strongest position since the uprising against 41 years of Qaddafi’s rule began in February, controlling the coast both east and west of Tripoli.
“The fall of Zawiyah would be the biggest milestone for the rebels since the liberation of Misrata. It’s a real morale booster for them and implies a sense of momentum,” analyst Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute in London said. “It’s a triple blow to Qaddafi as it is home to the regime’s only functioning oil refinery and may also in the medium-term allow the rebels to benefit from sales of oil; it also lies over his big supply line and blocks an important route from the Tunisian border to the capital.”
However, a rebel fighter said Qaddafi’s forces still controlled the Zawiyah oil refinery on the coast.
Medics on the outskirts of the city said sniper and mortar fire by Qaddafi forces killed three civilians. One man was shot in the head and a 15-year-old girl died of shrapnel wounds.
Waleed, brother of a woman with shrapnel wounds, said Qaddafi forces “have made life very hard for us in the past few months. They’ve gone from house to house arresting people and now they’re shooting at us indiscriminately.”
Libyans fleeing south in their cars said they had heard fighting in a place called Harsha, between Tripoli and Zawiyah.
“I heard fighting there today on our way here,” said one man who declined to give his name.
He said rebels clashed with Qaddafi’s security forces inside Tripoli on Sunday night.
“There is no gasoline, no electricity, food prices are up 300 percent. We just cannot live like this anymore,” he said.
Qaddafi’s latest exhortations to his supporters came in a speech early yesterday delivered over a poor quality telephone line and broadcast by state television in audio only. It was his first since rebels launched their biggest push in months.
“The Libyan people will remain and the Fateh Revolution [which brought Qaddafi to power in September 1969] will remain. Move forward, challenge, pick up your weapons, go to the fight for liberating Libya inch by inch from the traitors and from NATO,” the 69-year-old Qaddafi said.