Libyan rebels inch closer to Zlitan breakthrough

ZLITAN, Libya, July 31 Sun Jul 31, 2011 1:52pm EDT

ZLITAN, Libya, July 31 (Reuters) - Libyan rebel fighters from Misrata have pushed closer to entering the coastal town of Zlitan after 48 hours of fierce fighting in which at least 27 fighters have been killed on the frontline.

Television footage obtained by Reuters showed rebels making quick advances on Saturday, firing machineguns and engaging in close combat fighting with forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi on the eastern outskirts of the town.

Government soldiers retaliated early on Sunday, pushing the rebels back slightly. Overall, the rebels are 3 km (two miles) closer to Zlitan than they have been for the past 10 days.

Sensing an opportunity to break the stalemate, rebels pounded Gaddafi loyalists with mortars throughout the day and sent more fighters to the frontline in a bid to overrun their defences. But 14 fighters were killed and more than 20 were wounded on Sunday -- the highest death toll in the past few weeks of fighting around rebel-held Misrata.

"The war is now a street war, not a war fought in open spaces. What we need now is to organise our frontline completely," said local rebel commander Areesh Aafi, standing among bullet casings scattered across a rebel base near the front.

"We took some equipment and vehicles from Gaddafi forces," he said.

Capturing Zlitan would raise flagging rebel morale following months of stalemate across Libya. It would also divert attention from recent violence in Benghazi as Western countries backing the rebels seek assurances that Libya won't slip into an Iraq-like quagmire if Gaddafi's 41-year rule comes to an end.

FRAGILE ADVANCE

The rebel advance still seems insecure as the firepower and organisation of pro-Gaddafi forces has kept many units from joining the frontline on the eastern outskirts of Zlitan.

Rebel vehicles rushed up and down a narrow dusty road throughout the day, under fire from tank shells and mortars.

NATO warplanes flew overhead and rebels say the Western alliance hit at least two tanks belonging to pro-Gaddafi forces.

Some rebels reported close combat at times. One fighter said he had stared into the barrel of an anti-aircraft gun operated by Gaddafi loyalists only 15 metres away, before escaping.

"The fighting today was unlike anything we've had in the past few weeks. We had to concentrate and reorganise our defence quickly so we could keep some of the gains we made yesterday," said rebel Ahmed al-Qusayir, showing fellow fighters' mobile phone footage of the fighting he had filmed earlier in the day.

Rebels say they can now see the landmarks of central Zlitan in the distance. A Reuters team on the frontline saw what appeared to be the town centre of Zlitan with a plume of black smoke rising near its coast.

Despite the heavy losses, the fighters seemed upbeat. Many joked with friends at their base and looked relaxed despite the frequent explosions and gunfire heard in the distance.

Frustration has mounted over the lack of progress in the rebel military campaign and the latest advance has rekindled some hope, but capturing Tripoli still seems a distant prospect. (Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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