ZAWIYA, Libya – Libya’s rebels threatened to isolate Tripoli by blocking key supply routes and cutting oil pipelines on Monday after a dramatic weekend advance put them in the strongest position since the 6-month-old civil war began to attack Moammar Gadhafi’s stronghold.
In Washington, the Obama administration said the U.S. was encouraged by the rebel advances and hoped they had broken a months-long stalemate with Gadhafi’s forces.
“We are closing the roads for Gadhafi so there is no way for him to bring anything to Tripoli,” a rebel field commander, Jumma Dardira, told the Associated Press.
The rebels’ push into the strategic city of Zawiya on Saturday brought them within 30 miles of Tripoli, the closest they have ever gotten.
Also Monday, U.S. defense officials said Libyan government forces tapped into their stores of Scud missiles this weekend, firing one for the first time in this year’s conflict with rebels, but hurting no one.
The missile launch was detected by U.S. forces shortly after midnight Sunday and the Scud landed in the desert about 50 miles outside Brega, said one official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations.
Rebel and regime forces have battled over the strategic port city of Brega throughout the conflict, and control has swung back and forth between the two sides.
According to the military, the Scud missile was launched from a location about 50 miles east of Surt, a city on the Mediterranean coast about 230 miles east of Tripoli. Noting that Scuds are not precision-guided missiles, officials said they couldn’t tell if Brega was the target.
Early in the conflict, NATO and U.S. forces targeted sites around the country where Gadhafi stored surface-to-surface missiles like Scuds, largely because they worried that he would use them to target areas beyond his control.
Two senior U.S. officials said it is too soon to tell whether the Scud strike was a singular incident or if it represents a new phase of fighting. Scuds have a range of up to 500 miles.
After three days of fierce battles for Zawiya, a city of 200,000 on the Mediterranean coast, rebel commanders said they controlled the south and west of the city and were fighting for the refineries. Oil-rich Libya’s only functioning refineries are in Zawiya.
Nuri el-Bouaisi, an oil production engineer in the city, said rebels had cut off pipelines that transport gasoline and diesel fuel to Tripoli.
“We shut down all four pipelines to Tripoli,” said el-Bouaisi, whose claim could not be verified.
The rebels are also determined to cut key supply routes to Tripoli from the Ras Ajdir border crossing with Tunisia in the west and from the south, where Libya borders Chad and Niger. These are critical lifelines with NATO imposing a no-fly zone over the country.