Casualties mount, but rebels say Gaddafi's defeat is a step closer

As the dictator's last oil town falls, opposition forces in Zawiyah tell Kim Sengupta why they believe the last bloody chapter is near

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The Independent Online

The first attempts to wipe the pool of blood off the floor with rags failed, and mops were hurriedly brought in. The patient lay on the stretcher whispering a prayer. One eye was gone, both legs were cut to the bone and the chest and stomach had been gouged by spraying shrapnel.

The man was the latest casualty to be brought into Bir Muammar hospital. He was one of a long line of those severely injured by indiscriminate rocket and mortar attacks on the town of Zawiyah as the beleaguered and isolated Libyan regime lashed out in vicious fury at its own people.

"We cannot save him here," said Dr Hassan Tamim with a tired shake of his head. "We haven't the equipment or the medicine. We shall get him somewhere they may be able to help, that is all we can do. The patient will need emergency trauma treatment, surgery. But a lot of it is luck at the moment whether he survives or not. This is bad, we all want this terrible war to end."

That end was brought a violent step closer yesterday, with British warplanes playing a part, when the rebels captured the oil refinery of Zawiyah, the last one working under the control of Muammar Gaddafi's administration and the only source of petrol from within the country to Tripoli.

The evidence of a fierce five-hour battle lay in the remains of the regime's gun-mount flatbed trucks, now the battle wagon for both sides in the conflict, incinerated by Nato air strikes. Some of the defenders at the installation were captured, a few were killed, and the rest, said to be a handful of Touareg mercenaries, put out to sea on a boat that was then sunk by RAF Typhoon and Tornado aircraft.

The Ministry of Defence in London said: "Since it was clear from their actions that these troops continued to pose a threat to the local population, the RAF patrol engaged the ship. Although a challenging target, small and under way at sea, a direct hit was scored with a laser-guided Paveway bomb which sank the vessel. This is a tribute to the professionalism of the aircrew in tracking a moving target with the laser designator, and the accuracy of the weapon system."

Standing beside a benzine tank at the refinery, Yusef Hamid, an engineer who had worked at the facility for 14 years, said: "We are turning off the pipeline to Tripoli. Even last week many people thought that Gaddafi will survive, but now I think people realise he is finished. But there is more fighting to be done."

The fighting has come at a terrible cost to civilians. Eighty-five people have been killed and about 220 injured by regime forces in the past four days, according to doctors in Zawiyah, since the opposition launched its assault to take the town and cut off Colonel Gaddafi's supply lines from the outside world by taking this strategic point just 30 miles from Tripoli.

Some of them, at least, must have been rebel fighters killed in action. But among the latest to die was a woman aged 73, a man of 80, and a 12-year-old boy. "All of them were in homes that were hit by bombs. They had no chance," said Dr Idris Jawad Mohammed. "Are the Gaddafi men aiming before they fire? Well they are aiming at Zawiyah, that's all."

Dr Mohammed and some of his colleagues had just narrowly escaped becoming casualties themselves. The hospital, they say, has been deliberately targeted by the regime. "A few days ago the state TV in Tripoli broadcast that this place was being used by the rebels. I was very worried. It was an incitement to the soldiers. They have named other places in the past and this has been followed by attacks. I asked my colleagues to be careful."

Just before midnight on Wednesday two missiles landed 50 yards behind the hospital, followed by two more, even closer, which exploded between the building and a mosque next door. "We were very tired after a long day and sitting in the garden. I dived to the ground after the first rockets and then we ran to the wall and used that ladder to climb over. Then we ran like hell," the doctor explained.

Dr Mohammed had worked in the Central Clinic in Zawiyah during the early days of the February revolution, when the town was subdued by regime troops amid slaughter and the hospital, desperately short of medicine and with electricity cut, had to cope with dozens of wounded.

About a hundred people are inside the hospital now, half of them patients, trapped by the fighting going on outside. "Gaddafi has snipers on the roof and people trying to get out are being shot" Dr Mohammed said. "If people try to get out, then they are shot."

It was difficult to establish whether snipers had indeed been shooting from the hospital. What was clear, however, was that Zawiyah was far from under total rebel control, with missiles and mortar rounds crashing into the centre and south-western parts of the town.

The head of the opposition administration, the Transitional National Council in Benghazi, insisted yesterday that by Eid al-Fitr, the celebration at the end of Ramadan, the rebels would be in Tripoli.

But he also acknowledged that taking the capital would be a savage business. "The noose is tightening around Gaddafi," said Mustafa Abdel Jalil. But there may be a "veritable bloodbath. Gaddafi will not go quietly, he will go amid a catastrophe".

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