ZAWIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi fought gun battles with rebels in the town of Zawiyah Saturday, witnesses said, shutting the coastal highway that links the capital Tripoli with Tunisia.
Two Reuters reporters traveling via the town, which lies just 50 km (30 miles) outside of Tripoli, on two separate trips six hours apart, were diverted via backstreets with a police escort while the fighting raged on.
They said the highway was deserted except for lots of soldiers, police and armed men in civilian clothes. One heard bursts of gunfire coming from the direction of the city.
“The situation is very bad in Zawiyah. There’s been fierce fighting since the morning,” said the resident, who gave only his first name, Mohammed, fearing reprisals.
Four months since Gaddafi’s forces crushed a popular uprising against his four-decade rule that then morphed into an armed rebellion, Libya’s civil war is in stalemate.
Nearly three months of bombings by NATO war planes against Libyan military targets have failed to unseat Gaddafi or enable the rebels to launch an offensive on his territory in Tripoli.
Several explosions were heard in Tripoli throughout the afternoon, as late as 8 p.m. (2 p.m. ET), suggesting NATO was ramping up attacks after a quiet morning.
Libya TV reported that “the imperialist aggressors” had bombed several sites in and around the Libyan capital, in the town of Yafran, then showed footage of what it said were children wounded in past NATO bombings, to violin music.
Rebel spokesman Ahmed Bani said a senior Gaddafi aide had been wounded in a NATO strike on a city close to Tripoli on Saturday evening and was in hospital. There was no independent confirmation and Libyan officials were not available to comment.
The rebels control the east of Libya, the western city of Misrata and the range of mountains near the border with Tunisia. They are seeking to encircle the capital and cut it off, an aim that would be advanced if they manage to capture Zawiyah.
The highway has been used throughout the conflict by Gaddafi’s officials -- including fleeing defectors -- to reach the outside world, and by trucks bringing in food and other supplies to territory under Gaddafi’s control.
After a lull in fighting in the western, rebel-held city of Misrata, pro-Gaddafi forces which have besieging it started shelling its port late Saturday, Al Jazeera TV reported.
A doctor at the Hekma hospital said 31 people were killed and 110 wounded in shelling by Gaddafi forces Friday.
Pro-Gaddafi troops encircled the city of Zlitan, 160 km east of Tripoli, Saturday, rebels said, after fighting broke out there that could also open up the coastal road to the capital.
Some clashes between Gaddafi’s forces and rebels continued in the city, rebel spokesman Bani said, after the rebels took some parts of it. The toll remained 22 rebels killed.
Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim played down the clashes.
“There is no serious fighting going on in Zawiya or Zlitan. What has happened is that we’ve had small groups of rebels who have made their way from Zintan and the Western Mountains to cause trouble in these areas,” he told Reuters.
Zlitan is one of three towns that are largely government controlled between the rebel-held Misrata and the capital. Were it to fall, it could allow the anti-Gaddafi uprising to spread from Misrata, the biggest rebel outpost in western Libya, to Gaddafi’s stronghold in Tripoli.
World powers have given mixed signals on how the war might play out, with Russia trying to mediate reconciliation. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said Friday he had offered a “guarantee” to Gaddafi if he left Libya, but received no reply.
Gaddafi has refused to step down, describing the rebels as al Qaeda terrorists and Western intervention as an oil grab.
As diplomacy falters, several new battle fronts have opened.
Gaddafi’s forces also shelled for the first time the UNESCO world heritage-listed city of Ghadames, 600 km (370 miles) southwest of Tripoli, on the Tunisia and Algeria borders, overnight, opening a new front in the war, rebels said.
Rebels said the oasis town, with a population of about 7,000 people, mainly Berber, was under attack after an anti-government protest in the old Roman city Wednesday.
“This is a retaliation for anti-regime protests,” spokesman Juma Ibrahim said from the rebel-held town of Zintan.
The report could not be independently verified.
The old town was de-populated by Gaddafi in the 1990s and its inhabitants moved into modern buildings. It was not clear if the attack hit the old town, a labyrinth of narrow, underground passages and houses known as the “Pearl of the Desert.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday some NATO allies of failing to pull their weight:
“The mightiest military alliance in history was only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country -- yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions,” he said.
Additional reporting by Mussab Al-Khairalla in Tripoli, Sherine El Madany in Benghazi, Joseph Nasr in Rabat and Tarek Amara in Tunis; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Alison Williams