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Gaddafi forces defeat rebels in western Libyan town

TUNIS (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi retook the small coastal town of Zuwarah on Monday, ending one of the last rebellions in western Libya, after a day of heavy artillery fire sent residents fleeing for safety.

Loyalist troops launched their attack in the morning, closing in from west, east and south and fighting their way into what had been a relatively quiet town since the insurrection against Gaddafi began last month.

Insurgents in the town had said they were poorly equipped and doubted they could hold it very long. In the end, they were routed within a few hours.

“Zuwarah is in their hands now,” a resident named Tarek Abdallah said. “They control it and there is no sign of the rebels. They are now in the center -- the army and the tanks.”

“The fighting stopped and they are here,” he told Reuters by telephone. “We don’t know what will happen to us and we fear they might commit crimes. We hope and pray to God they don’t.”

The only main town still held by rebels in the west, where Gaddafi has his power base, is Misrata, 200 km (130 miles) east of Tripoli. Zuwarah stands 120 km (70 miles) west of Tripoli and near the border with Tunisia.

During the artillery assault, an insurgent fighter named Abu Zeid said: “We are defending ourselves but we can’t do it for long. There are not enough weapons. It’s very bad here now.”


Another resident, Waleed, said: “We are hiding in our houses, we are very scared. How can they do something like that to us? We are Libyans like them.”

One rebel fighter was killed and many wounded, insurgent Abu Zeid said. “They came in military vehicles and started shooting at us,” he said. “We do not have weapons, we are fighting with whatever we can find here. God knows what will happen to us.”

There were reports of fighting in Zuwarah at the start of the insurrection against Gaddafi’s four-decade rule last month but since then there had been no news from the town.

Gaddafi’s forces initially lost control over large swathes of the oil exporting North African country, but over the past week, military momentum has shifted back in their favor.

His forces have stamped out a rebellion in Zawiyah, 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli and pushed insurgents in the east back from the oil towns of Ras Lanuf and Brega.

Rebels and residents there have reported that an assault on the city had been held up by a mutiny within the ranks of the besieging government forces.

“The fighting has stopped now. Early on Monday we heard five shells after a fierce night of fighting and now it has stopped,” Mohammed, a resident of Misrata, told Reuters by telephone.

“We are not sure why it has stopped. Maybe they got tired or maybe one group won over the other. Things are not clear.”

The government has denied the reports, which could not be verified independently because Libyan authorities have not allowed reporters access to the city.

Writing by Silvia Aloisi and Tom Heneghan; editing by Ralph Boulton