Rebels were yesterday fighting battles in coastal cities on either side of the besieged Libyan capital in a drive to topple Muammar Qaddafi after six months of war.
Mortar and rocket rounds crashed yesterday into the center of Zawiyah, a city on the coastal highway 50km west of Tripoli that the rebels captured this week in one of the boldest advances of their uprising.
Shells struck the central hospital at about dawn, blasting holes in the walls. Inside were scenes of destruction. There was fighting around the hospital on Friday.
In the central square, residents were burning and stamping on a green Qaddafi flag.
“Qaddafi is finished. Civilians are starting to come back to the cities. Libya is finally free,” said one, who gave his name as Abu Khaled.
In a nearby alley, residents had gathered to stare at the bodies of two Qaddafi soldiers lying in the street. Gunfire and explosions could be heard in the distance.
The rebels’ capture of Zawiyah has transformed the conflict by cutting Tripoli off from its main road link to the outside world, putting unprecedented pressure on the 41-year rule of Qaddafi.
Rebels said the main Qaddafi force had retreated about 10km east to the town of Jaddayim, close to Tripoli’s outskirts, and were shelling Zawiyah from there.
East of the capital, where fighting has been bloodier and rebel advances far slower, opposition forces fought street battles in the city of Zlitan, but suffered heavy casualties, a reporter said.
A rebel spokesman said 32 rebel fighters were killed and 150 wounded.
Qaddafi’s spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said late on Friday the government’s military retained the upper hand in both Zawiyah and Zlitan.
The sudden imposition of a siege around Tripoli has trapped its residents behind the front line and cut it off from fuel and food. The International Organisation for Migration said on Friday it would organize a rescue operation to evacuate thousands of foreign workers, probably by sea.
About 600,000 of the 1.5 million to 2.5 million foreign workers in Libya fled the country early in the conflict, but many thousands stayed in Tripoli.
In a possible psychological blow to Qaddafi’s government, rebels said his former deputy Abdel Salam Jalloud had defected to rebel-held territory in the western mountains.
Jalloud was a member of the junta that staged a 1969 coup bringing Qaddafi to power and was once seen as Qaddafi’s second-in-command, but fell out of favor in the 1990s. It was not immediately clear what impact his defection would have.
“He is definitely here in Zintan. He is under the control of the military council here,” said Massoud Ali, a local rebel spokesman.
Rebels showed reporters a video of a person they identified as Jalloud standing among them.
Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim would not comment on Jalloud’s whereabouts, but said if Jalloud had left Libya he hoped he would help bring a negotiated end to the conflict.
With rebels pushing on the ground, NATO has pressed on with its campaign from the air and its warplanes pounded targets in the capital overnight.