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Armed battles in Libya city streets


Libyan rebels and forces loyal to Mummar Gaddafi have fought in Zawiya (AP)

Libyan rebels and forces loyal to Mummar Gaddafi have fought in Zawiya (AP)

Libyan rebels and forces loyal to Mummar Gaddafi have fought in Zawiya (AP)

Libyan rebels in pick-up trucks mounted with weapons and troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi have battled in the streets of Zawiya, a day after opposition forces pushed from the western mountains into the strategic city in their most dramatic advance in months.

Pro-Gaddafi snipers shot at rebels from an overpass deep in the city, while loud booms echoed and a column of heavy black smoke rose over the outskirts. Dozens of civilians crammed in cars with their belongings fled the city. In one, four women cried as their male driver called out: "There are dead people in our neighbourhood."

A reporter in Zawiya saw some of the fiercest battles on Ghanam Street, a main road leading into the centre from the south of the city. Pick-up trucks sped along it from the city, ferrying the wounded and dead, and piling them into ambulances.

The city of 200,000 just 30 miles west of Tripoli rose up against the regime shortly after the revolt against Gaddafi began in February. But Gaddafi forces crushed opposition in the city in a long and bloody siege in March.

Many rebel fighters from Zawiya fled into the farmlands surrounding the city and western mountains further away, waiting for the right time to join in a new offensive to retake the city. Zawiya had been a key target for western mountain rebels and some of those who fled the city earlier were among the forces that advanced on the city on Saturday.

"There were sleeping cells of rebels inside Zawiya," Abdel-Bassit Abu Riyak, a rebel fighter said. He said when the fighters in the western mountains arrived, the cell rose up and helped to attack the Gaddafi troops.

A group of about 200 exuberant rebel fighters, advancing from the south, reached a bridge on Zawiya's south west outskirts on Saturday, and some rebels pushed farther into the city's central main square. They tore down the green flag of Gaddafi's regime from a mosque minaret and put up two rebel flags.

The reporter with the rebels saw hundreds of residents rush into the streets, greeting the fighters piled into the backs of pick-up trucks with chants of "God is great".

The city was tense on Sunday, with the rebels erecting numerous checkpoints. At one, rebels fired in the air to restore order when a crowd gathered around a man who refused to open his car's boot for inspection. Elsewhere, eight African men were rounded up by the rebels and taken to the local intelligence building as residents shouted "mercenaries" at them.

A total death toll was impossible to verify during the height of the chaotic fighting, but Mohammed said Gaddafi troops struck a mosque in the city centre, killing eight people and injuring 25. A reporter saw the bodies of two people brought back in pick up trucks from the front line.