ZAWIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - Libyan rebels said they were fighting forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi for a second day in the town of Zawiyah on Sunday, bringing the revolt against Gaddafi’s rule close to the capital.
A spokesman for the government in Tripoli said rebels had tried to enter Zawiyah, about 50 km (30 miles) from Tripoli, but had been stopped by government troops and defeated on Saturday.
But a rebel in the town contradicted that, saying heavy fighting was still taking place on Sunday, and a Reuters reporter taken on a Libyan government-organised visit to parts of Zawiyah heard shots being fired near the central square.
Zawiyah was the scene of fierce battles soon after a nationwide rebellion against Gaddafi’s 41-year rule in February. His security forces snuffed out the rebels in Zawiyah, a prelude to the revolt elsewhere in Libya losing its initial momentum.
Three months later, the war has shifted against Gaddafi, with his grip on power weakened by defections in his entourage, the impact of sanctions on supplies and NATO air strikes that have struck his compound in Tripoli.
Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, in an interview with Reuters, said there was a growing confidence that Gaddafi’s “days are numbered.”
Libyan state television broadcast images of Gaddafi — who has been keeping a low public profile since NATO began its air strikes — meeting Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the president of the international chess federation.
Ilyumzhinov, quoted by Russian news agencies, said he played a game of chess in Tripoli with the Libyan leader, who told him he had no intention of leaving his country.
The fresh outbreak of fighting in Zawiyah, which is the site of a big oil refinery, marks the closest the armed rebellion has come to Gaddafi’s stronghold in the capital for months.
Asked about the government assertion the revolt there had been defeated, a rebel spokesman in Zawiyah told Reuters by telephone: “It is not true.”
“The revolutionaries (rebels) control several parts of the coastal road linking Tripoli to Tunisia and skirmishes are still going on in the center of the city,” said the spokesman, who gave his name as M’hamed Ezzawi.
Speaking earlier, Ezzawi said 13 rebel fighters and civilians, including a 7-year-old boy, had been killed in the clashes on Saturday.
Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim told reporters at a news conference in Tripoli that a rebel force numbering no more than 100 attacked a checkpoint outside Zawiyah on Saturday.
He said government forces killed and captured some rebels, with the rest now surrounded in an area west of Zawiyah and negotiating their surrender.
“This is just another proof of how weak and unpopular they (the rebels) are,” Ibrahim said. The rebels “cannot achieve any advance against the Libyan government,” he said.
Foreign journalists were taken to Zawiyah on Sunday under the supervision of government officials. They were allowed into the eastern part of the town and the central square, but not the western side where rebels say they are fighting.
The square was almost deserted except for a few police officers and soldiers. A Reuters reporter heard three gunshots to the west of the city center. The eastern side seemed normal, with people going about their business and vehicles on the streets.
Though weakened after months of fighting and NATO attacks, Gaddafi’s forces have not buckled.
An ambulance worker in rebel-held Misrata, Libya’s third-biggest city, said six rebel fighters were killed by pro-Gaddafi forces when they clashed in farmland between Misrata and the neighbouring town of Zlitan.
Workers at a field hospital near the front line used buckets of water to wash away blood that gathered on the floor after ambulances and pick-up trucks brought in dozens of wounded fighters, a Reuters reporter in Misrata said.
Later, NATO warplanes were in the sky over the city and then the sound of an air strike could be heard hitting the area to the west of the city where the fighting had taken place.
Pro-Gaddafi forces also killed five people when they fired mortars and Russian-made Grad rockets at Zintan, part of the rebel-held Western Mountains region, according to a rebel spokesman.
“The shelling is still going on ... The revolutionaries are trying to defend the town,” he said.
The United Arab Emirates said it recognised the rebel Transitional National Council, based in the eastern city of Benghazi, joining a small but growing list of states which view the council as Libya’s legitimate representatives.
Gaddafi says he has no intention of bowing to international pressure to step down. He has called the NATO intervention with warplanes and attack helicopters an act of colonial aggression aimed at grabbing Libya’s plentiful oil.
But the rebellion is inching closer to the capital as rebels gradually expand the territory they hold and reports emerge of new unrest flaring up in towns elsewhere in Libya.
Rudd, the Australian foreign minister, spoke of messages coming from various levels of Gadaffi’s administration “seeking contact with the outside world about possible accommodations.”
“There’s a growing confidence across the international community that this guy’s days are numbered,” Rudd said during a visit to London.
“And when you start to have feelers from the core of the Gadaffi regime about how this guy can be accommodated, then I think the writing starts to be on the wall.”
In Tripoli — Gaddafi’s main stronghold — residents have told Reuters of anti-Gaddafi protests, though these have been quickly dispersed by his security forces.
“The districts of Tripoli are waiting for a signal so they can all rise up together,” said a resident of the city who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals.
NATO member states are keen for a quick resolution in Libya because voters do not want another long, costly conflict along the lines of those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Additional reporting by Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Mussab Al-Khairall in Tripoli, Matt Robinson in Misrata, Kate Kelland in London, Andrew Hammond in Dubai and Jan Strupczewski in Brussels; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Matthew Jones