ZAWIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - Rebel fighters transformed Libya's battlefield this week by seizing Zawiyah on the outskirts of Tripoli but, with shells still raining down on the city, few believe the fighting is over.
The rebel presence in Zawiyah cuts off Tripoli's main route to the outside world. Although Gaddafi's forces, determined to retake it, mounted a fierce counter-offensive Friday, the rebels were still in control Saturday and saying they expected more fighting.
"Gaddafi will try to take back Zawiyah at any price. He will keep shelling the hospital," said a rebel fighter as he was preparing for midday prayers in the mosque of Bir Hawisa, a nearby village where many civilians are sheltering in safety.
"We will not let that happen. We will fight," he said.
Rebels said the main Gaddafi force had withdrawn to a village 10 km to the east. Saturday the area around Zawiyah's main hospital showed the signs of battle, with buildings punctured by artillery blasts and licked by flames.
The hospital itself was wrecked inside. Doctors said it had been hit by shells around dawn.
In the central square, residents had set fire to and were stamping on a green Gaddafi flag. "Gaddafi is finished. Civilians are starting to come back to the cities. Libya is finally free," said one, who gave his name as Abu Khaled.
In a nearby alley, residents had gathered to stare at the bodies of two Gaddafi soldiers lying in the street. Gunfire and explosions could be heard in the distance.
Doctors from the central hospital have relocated to the relative safety of a field hospital outside the city center. Even there, the sound of exploding mortar bombs sent ambulance staff and guards scrambling into the building for shelter.
"There is shelling and also snipers still in town," said a doctor at the field hospital. "We are moving all patients to hospitals far away from the city which are safer."
WAIT AND SEE
Some residents were making their way back into the city. Rebels said it was now safe to pass beyond a checkpoint at a bridge that had been off limits to civilians the past two days. More than 30 cars, some packed with families, could be seen heading into the city beyond the checkpoint.
But many other civilians are still sheltering in nearby villages, waiting for signs that the violence has ended.
"I am waiting with my family for the time being. It's still too dangerous to go back," said Hani Mohammed, a young man, waiting by the road in the dusty village of Bir Hawisa 20 km outside Zawiyah. "We've been here for three days and we'll stay put for now."
Cars were parked on the main road belonging to families seeking shelter in private houses.
"Many are still waiting to see," said Khaled Mohammed who has given shelter to a family fleeing from the city. "Gaddafi is crazy. What does he want? To destroy his own people?" he said before heading to the village mosque for prayers.
Although the village is away from the fighting, life is difficult. Cars were queuing for several hundred metres at a nearby petrol station. "There has been no petrol for days. The electricity also gets cut," said Khaled who works as teacher.
(Editing by Peter Graff and Mike Nesbit)