Rebels fight to hold key city that could turn the tide against Gaddafi

While Tripoli remains heavily defended, the rebels are probably in their strongest position since the fighting began

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The Independent Online

Libya's rebels triumphantly raised their flag in the centre of the key town of Zawiyah yesterday, but continuing opposition from pro-Gaddafi forces threatened their efforts to consolidate what would be their most significant victory for months.

Zawiyah is of crucial importance as it sits on the road that provides the Libyan regime in Tripoli with its main supply link to the outside world. It was one of the first cities to rise up against Muammar Gaddafi, but after some initial success the rebels were forced to flee to the mountains on Libya's western border; in the weeks after their flight, the regime attempted to erase all signs of their presence, even razing a central mosque that had been used as a makeshift hospital.

The new assault was launched from the same mountain range, with many of those rebels who fled returning late on Saturday. Yesterday they joyously tore down the plain green flag of the Gaddafi regime from a mosque's minaret, the Associated Press reported, putting two rebel standards in its place. A crowd greeted the arriving forces with chants of "freedom, freedom".

Initially the rebels faced little opposition, commanders said, and easily secured the centre of the city with about 60 fighters, a bridgehead to allow reinforcements to come in. Others put the initial attacking force at about 200.

As the rebels set up checkpoints on Zawiyah's main roads yesterday, there were reports that they were still under attack from vantage points around the city. "We are not saying we have now achieved total victory," one opposition commander, Idris Ali Rahimi, told The Independent. "There are still Gaddafi snipers around the place and they will try to send other troops. We don't want civilians to get killed and we are being very careful. But this is a big achievement for us."

There have been reports of tension and incidents across the city. At one checkpoint, rebel fighters fired their guns in the air to calm a crowd that had grown suspicious of a driver who was reluctant to open the boot of his car. Elsewhere, a group of African men were rounded up to shouts of "mercenaries" and held in handcuffs at the city's intelligence headquarters.

The Gaddafi regime maintained that the rebels had not made headway in Zawiyah; a spokesman insisted the city had seen only small pockets of fighting and remained under "full control".

But rebels were bullish in their claims of success. "We are moving forward step by step," said Colonel Mohamed Ali Ethish, the head of the military council in Rujban, a town in the western mountains, as he toured the front line last night. "Morale is very high. The other side does not have the fighting motivation."

Another opposition commander, Fathi el-Ayeb, said he had fighters about nine miles outside Zawiyah. He added that reconnaissance parties had found local people who "are waiting for us so that they can come and join us".

The victory arguably puts the rebels in their strongest position since the conflict began, with the regime forces now hemmed in on all sides and further obstacles to their attempts to resupply. But any prospect of a charge onwards to Tripoli looks remote at the moment. Heavily armed pro-Gaddafi forces still stand in the way and remain a formidable presence despite supportive bombing raids by Nato.

The rebels had earlier claimed that they had taken over the border crossings between Libya and Tunisia, effectively cutting off supply lines for the regime in Tripoli. However, according to local people, heavy fighting was still under way after Gaddafi forces counter attacked.