Victory celebrations in the breakaway city of Zawiya were replaced with caution last night as residents braced for more battles with forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
As the entrenched Libyan leader threatened to send in air attacks, rebels armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns were stationed at entrances to the city, which repelled a six-hour attack by loyalist troops on Monday night.
Young men were positioned on the roofs of high-rise buildings to monitor enemy movements and sound the warning if an attack was imminent. "Thank God, they are ready," said protester Belgassem al-Zawee, 50, who told Bloomberg news agency they had armed themselves from weapons depots.
Earlier, residents of the strategic refinery centre, 30 miles west of the capital, Tripoli, had marched through the streets, handing out sweets and cold drinks to fighters who had fended off pro-Gaddafi forces trying to re-take the rebel stronghold.
Zawiya has been in opposition hands for more than a week, its defenders engaging in repeated skirmishes with the army massing around it. "They keep trying to take it back but the people will not stand for it," one man told The Independent. "The people of Zawiya are very well known throughout Libya for being strong fighters."
The rebels, who include disaffected members of the armed forces and are equipped with tanks and anti-aircraft guns, said pro-Gaddafi troops attacked from six directions on Monday.
Witnesses said members of the elite Khamis Brigade were among those fighting to re-take control but eventually conceded defeat at about 3am. It was unclear last night how many casualties each side suffered. "We were able to repulse the attack. We damaged a tank with an RPG. The mercenaries fled after that," said one resident.
Pro-Gaddafi forces were also repelled in Misrata, Libya's third-largest city 125 miles east of Tripoli, and Zintan, 75 miles south of the capital on Monday night. There were reports that Colonel Gaddafi had telephoned Zawiya's influential tribal leader, Mohammed al-Maktouf, and threatened to send in air attacks if the rebels did not leave the main square. Some residents said that checkpoints on the city's east and west sides were halting the flow of food and medicine into Zawiya, adding: "They are trying to starve us to death."
One resident, Ibrahim al-Hajj, 58, said the rebels were swelled by army defectors, adding: "The Libyan army is the army of the people, not the army of the dictator. We hope the brigades that are still hesitating would side with the people and spare the bloodshed."