ZAWIYA, Libya – Dozens of opposition fighters surrounded Libya’s last functioning oil refinery Wednesday and laid siege to about 100 government troops, part of a push that brought them closer to seizing this strategic western city.
A rebel victory in Zawiya could be a turning point in the 6-month-old war and leave Moammar Gadhafi nearly cornered in his increasingly isolated stronghold of Tripoli, the capital, just 30 miles to the east along the Mediterranean coast.
Wednesday’s fighting focused around the sprawling refinery complex on the western outskirts of Zawiya, a city of 200,000. The rebels, who began their assault on the refinery a day earlier, took control of the facility’s three-story administration building, tearing down the Gadhafi regime’s green flag that flew over the grounds.
Desperate Gadhafi troops cut off from the main government forces took cover in a residential compound and closed the gates to prevent workers from fleeing, rebels said. The troops barricaded themselves in and positioned snipers on rooftops. An Associated Press photographer inside the refinery with rebel troops heard occasional bursts of gunfire.
An oil engineer in the compound said about 100 Gadhafi soldiers remained inside late Wednesday afternoon. At least several dozen rebel fighters were also in the area. A rebel field commander in Zawiya, Osama Arusi, said his forces controlled parts of the complex.
The Libyan rebels made a dramatic advance on Saturday out of their bases in the western mountains near Tunisia into Zawiya on the Mediterranean coast. Since then, they have taken control of 70 percent of the city, rebel commanders say, and have been slowly gaining ground in fierce battles with Gadhafi’s forces.
The clashes at the refinery began Tuesday, then opposition fighters pulled out at nightfall and made a new push after daybreak, Arusi said.
Arusi said rebels wanted to take the refinery undamaged and have been negotiating with Gadhafi soldiers inside the refinery since entering Zawiya on Saturday. He said that on Tuesday morning, some of the regime fighters, all locals, surrendered to the rebels after several days of negotiations.
The remaining Gadhafi loyalists closed the gate of the residential compound for refinery workers and their families. It was unclear how many people were living there. Many of the workers were evacuated early in the civil war, which began in mid-February.
Arusi said the clashes at the refinery shut down an oil pipeline to Tripoli, where a third of Libya’s 6 million people live.
“The pipeline from Zawiya to Tripoli has been switched off,” Arusi said. “The man who is responsible for switching the pipeline off said it is not working.”