Zawiyah's heart a ghost town after rebel advance

ZAWIYAH, Libya Sun Jun 12, 2011 7:01pm EDT

1 of 2. A Libyan policeman walks in Zawiyah town in Libya June 12, 2011. RUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

ZAWIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - For a city that the Libyan government has said is under no real threat from rebels, the center of Zawiyah was eerily quiet Sunday.

The main square was all but deserted when the government brought in a small group of reporters in the late afternoon a day after rebels advanced on the city from the west.

Beyond a few police officers and soldiers, there was almost no one in sight. Just buildings bearing the bullet marks and jagged holes from explosions left over from fierce battles three months ago.

Zawiyah was the scene of heavy fighting soon after a nationwide rebellion in February against the 41-year rule of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The rebels were defeated in Zawiyah on March 10, but three months later they have returned.

On a first run through Zawiyah, government minders with a police escort did not stop or slow down. They drove around the center before heading straight back east toward Tripoli.

After a brief halt outside the city, the small convoy returned to the square and stopped briefly. Large green flags of the Gaddafi regime fluttered in the breeze and, somewhat incongruously, the square's fountain was running.

Not far east, people could be seen moving around, but the heart of Zawiyah was as quiet as the grave. Quiet enough for the journalists to make out three gun shots not far to the west. The convoy went no further west.

Two old men on a bench were quickly approached by government minders when a Reuters reporter ventured in their direction. At almost the same moment the signal was given that it was time for the group to leave the city.

Saturday, a Libyan government spokesman said there was "no serious fighting" in Zawiyah.

Sunday the same spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, told reporters that no more than 100 rebel fighters who had attacked to the west of the city, were holed up after suffering losses and the government was trying to negotiate their surrender.

"They were not able to enter Zawiyah," he said. "Their numbers are very small."

"They were defeated after a few hours of scattered skirmishes with the army," he added.

Not long after the reporters left Zawiyah, rebel spokesman M'hamed Ezzawi said by phone there was heavy fighting 400 meters (yards) from the square.

"The brigades are using heavy weapons. They are better equipped than the revolutionaries," he said. "We have no statistics so far as to the number of martyrs but there are at least seven wounded among the revolutionaries."

As the reporters prepared to leave Sunday afternoon, a small family of three appeared outside a building. The mother held a baby in one arm and several bags in the other.

Slowly, she plodded away from the square to the south, followed by her husband, back bent and arms laden with as many of their possessions as he could carry.

(Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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