RAS JDIR, Tunisia (Reuters) - Days of pitched battles have turned the center of Zawiyah into a “ghost town” where rebels are tensed for the next assault by pro-Gaddafi forces who have cut off supplies to the western Libyan city.
“So far nothing is happening but there is tension,” said Ibrahim, a fighter in central Zawiyah, told Reuters by phone.
“It looks like a ghost town. There is nobody in the streets and shops are closed. What is left of the shops that weren’t destroyed by the bombing did not open today.”
Zawiyah, a coastal city of 290,000 people with a large refinery and a university that lies 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli, is the biggest rebel holdout in western Libya, which is mostly controlled by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi.
“Things are very, very bad there,” said a Nigerian named Silverter who worked in the city but slipped out with his employer’s help early on Thursday during a lull in fighting.
“Now the rebels are in control. They are strong and have a lot of ammunition,” he said on arrival at the Tunisian border. “All they want is to see Gaddafi leave. They do not care how many of them die, they want him out.
“I saw buildings bombed and people die in front of my eyes. They just dropped dead. Man, the situation was crazy and I said, ‘why stay here?’”
Ibrahim, who has vowed to stay and fight, was clear about the dangers he and other insurgents faced. “Gaddafi forces are encircling the town,” he said. “This is our town and we will defend it until victory or martyrdom.”
Like many other details, the extent of the killing in almost a week of heavy fighting there is unclear. Ibrahim said the rebels lost nine fighters on Wednesday as Gaddafi forces took over the main square but were later pushed out again.
A doctor told Reuters on Wednesday he had seen at least 40 dead that day and estimated there were many more corpses that relatives could not recover because loyalist snipers shot anyone who ventured out on to the streets.
The rebels’ home advantage helps them hold the main square even if pro-Gaddafi forces fight their way into it, Ibrahim explained. “When they enter, we start attacking them from the sides, so we leave them no choice but to pull back,” he said.
“(They) are not from Zawiyah so they don’t know how to move around. Even when they pull back, they withdraw down the same roads they entered from because they do not know any others.”
Opponents of Gaddafi are preparing for an anti-government protest after Friday prayers. They hope it will be bigger than the rally last week that government forces attacked, killing at least 30 people and encircling the city.
Residents took advantage of the lull in fighting on Thursday to check on family and friends and bury the dead.
“We did not bury people in the cemetery because of the snipers there,” Ibrahim said. “Each of the martyrs was buried near where they died. We just wanted to put them in the ground for now, to cover them over and pay them respect.”
Libyan officials took foreign journalists on a trip to Zawiyah late on Wednesday, but only as far as a stadium outside the town where they watched pro-Gaddafi celebrations and food being distributed to local people.
Mohamed, a Libyan exile who got through to a relative on the outskirts of Zawiyah on Thursday morning, said a ring of loyalist forces had cut off the center of the city.
“Yesterday, they (rebel sympathizers) tried to bring food and medicine from Subratha but they failed. Government troops surround Zawiyah from everywhere,” he said.
His relative said it was unclear who held the city center. “It’s street-to-street fighting. There is no communication with the city center. There are a lot of people inside, hiding.”
Ibrahim said the army encirclement was taking its toll on the city. “We are running out of food and baby milk,” he said. “This is a disaster for us. As adults we can bear it without food but babies do not understand and they are crying.”
Libyan authorities have barred foreign journalists from the city without special permission, which rarely comes. The BBC said three staffers were detained this week trying to reach Zawiyah and some were beaten and subjected to mock execution.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper said one of its correspondents, and a colleague from a Brazilian newspaper, had disappeared near Zawiyah. The press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said on Thursday the two had been arrested.
Reporting by Mariam Karouny in Ras Jdir, Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy in Tripoli, writing by Tom Heneghan; editing by Diana Abdallah