ZAWIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - For Issam Legun, the fact that he and his fellow rebels were standing inside this town near Tripoli Sunday felt like a turning point in the six month conflict with Muammar Gaddafi’s forces.
“I hope we can go and attack Tripoli in a few days,” said Legun, a taxi driver turned anti-Gaddafi fighter who was wearing a T-shirt with the word “Raw” written across it. “Now that we have Zawiyah, we can free Libya,” he said.
Rebels from the Western Mountains region, about 100 km south of here, poured into Zawiyah Saturday and by early Sunday controlled most of the town, though pro-Gaddafi forcers were still holding out in northern districts.
Taking the capital is still a long way off: Gaddafi is likely to have withdrawn his best-trained forces to save them for the defense of Tripoli. And rebels have said before their victory is imminent, only for Gaddafi to fight back.
Nevertheless, entering Zawiyah was a major development in a conflict which for months now has been close to deadlock, with the rebels advancing small distances at great cost in lives.
“I‘m 1,000 percent sure we’re going to take over Zawiyah today and then move on to Tripoli,” said Bin Jaffin Ali, 34, a rebel fighter who used to be a shopkeeper.
Some 50 rebels, armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, gathered near Zawiyah’s main produce market.
They shouted “Allahu Akbar!,” or “God is greatest!” Nearby, the red, black and green rebel flag was flying from a shop.
Pickup trucks with sand smeared on their bodywork for camouflage and large-caliber guns mounted on the back -- the rebels’ favored mode of transport -- drove around the streets.
In the outskirts of the town, civilian vehicles drove past with the passengers giving the “V for victory” sign.
The rebel attack on Zawiyah, on Libya’s Mediterranean coast, is the most dramatic advance into Gaddafi-controlled territory since the uprising against his 41-year rule began.
The fact that the rebels have advanced so close to Tripoli is likely to deliver a psychological blow to Gaddafi’s supporters. The government in Tripoli Saturday denied rebels were in control, saying it successfully repelled a small attack.
Zawiyah lies on the main highway between Tripoli and the border with Tunisia, so the rebel advance effectively cuts Tripoli off from its supply lifeline.
The city could also be starved of the fuel produced by the oil refinery in Zawiyah, the only functioning refinery left in western Libya.
After entering the town, rebels were preoccupied with flushing out pro-Gaddafi snipers, who they said had taken up positions on tall buildings.
At one point, rebels led a group of four captured pro-Gaddafi fighters, each with their hands clasped behind their hands, to a waiting vehicle. Rebels said they were snipers.
The rebel entry into Zawiyah was an emotional moment for townspeople who had taken part in two uprisings against Gaddafi’s forces since February and then fled or gone underground when the revolts repressed.
A part of the rebel forces which entered Zawiyah was made up of fighters who had fled the town earlier.
Isa Korogle, a 35-year-old unemployed man, said he had been hiding in farmland near Zawiyah because he feared for his life since taking part in the uprisings earlier this year.
He said Gaddafi’s security forces had formed special committees to detain anyone who took part in the revolt.
“It feels like the first day of my life because I‘m back in Zawiyah,” he said Sunday.
Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Jon Hemming