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Gaddafi troops force back rebels

Muammar Gaddafi's forces have pushed rebels back from the centre of the strategic city of Zawiya in fierce fighting to try to prevent the opposition from consolidating a major advance to within 30 miles of the capital Tripoli.

Meanwhile Libyan Interior Minister Nassr al-Mabrouk Abdullah flew into Egypt on his private plane with nine family members in what could be a high-level defection.

He arrived after a weekend of significant advances by rebels from Libya's western mountains toward Gaddafi's stronghold of Tripoli. The rebels on Saturday pushed through to Zawiya, just 30 miles west of the capital on the Mediterranean coast, for the first time since the uprising against Gaddafi began in February.

The rebel advance was raising fears among Tripoli residents over the prospect that fighting might soon reach the capital. Cars carrying civilians fleeing Tripoli crossed checkpoints on a desert road around Zawiya, headed for the rebel-held western mountains.

Regime forces pushed the rebels back from the centre of Zawiya in fighting concentrated on the main coastal road connecting Tripoli and the border crossing with Tunisia.

Rebels in Zawiya were running low on ammunition. Some sat huddled on the sides of streets, taking cover by the walls of buildings as they waited for more supplies.

The rebels said they were trying to cut off two of Gaddafi's crucial overland supply routes, critical with Nato imposing a no-fly zone over the country.

They claimed to have captured at least two other towns near Tripoli that sit on key supply routes for Tripoli. They said they now held the town of Gharyan, 50 miles south of Tripoli.

Omar Obeid, field commander for the Sabratha area, 20 miles west of Zawiya on the coast, said rebels had taken up positions in houses along a major supply route there that connects the Ras Ajdir border crossing with Tunisia to Tripoli. The same road runs through Zawiya, where rebels could also block it if they manage to take control of the city.

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