ZAWIYA, Libya – Libyan rebels battled their way back into a major oil port just 30 miles west of Tripoli on Saturday, forcing Moammar Gadhafi’s troops to close the vital coast highway and key supply route from Tunisia. The renewed rebel offensive marked a significant rebound for opposition forces, who were crushed and driven out of the city nearly three months ago.
Rebels first took Zawiya in early March, but were brutally expelled less than two weeks later in an assault by members of an elite brigade commanded by Gadhafi’s son Khamis. That had left rebels with only tenuous footholds in Libya’s far west.
On Saturday, Guma el-Gamaty, a London-based spokesman for the rebels’ political leadership council, said opposition fighters had taken control of a large area on the western side of the city. A rebel fighter who fled Zawiya at the end of March said “there are clashes inside Zawiya itself.” The rebel, who identified himself only as Kamal, said “the fighters are back in the city” and that he had spoken with them.
While too early to mark a breakthrough in the stalemated civil war between Gadhafi forces and the rebels, who control roughly the eastern third of the country, an opposition offensive so near the capital was bound to put a nearly intolerable burden on Gadhafi forces.
They have been riddled by defections, badly hurt by ongoing U.N.-sanctioned NATO airstrikes and facing huge resupply problems as a result of the naval blockade that has clamped off ports. The international actions are designed to help the 4-month-old rebel uprising drive Gadhafi from nearly 40 years in power in the oil-rich North African country.
Shelling continued sporadically Saturday near the rebel-held port city of Misrata, where Gadhafi forces hit towns on the western outskirts of the city, 125 miles east of Tripoli. More than 30 rebels were reported killed in government fire from tanks, artillery and incendiary rockets that rained down on Dafniya, about 18 miles west of Misrata.