ZAWIYA, Libya – Moammar Gadhafi’s regime showed growing confidence Friday after retaking a strategic city near Tripoli following days of relentless shelling against protesters-turned-rebels as it strengthened its hold on the capital and surrounding areas.
Government forces also captured a key oil town in the east and fought to dislodge rebels who took refuge among towering storage containers of crude oil and gas in nearby facilities.
Zawiya’s main square, which had been a key center of resistance to the west of the capital, bore the scars of battle and the streets were lined with tanks as loyalists waving green flags rallied amid a heavy presence of uniformed pro-Gadhafi troops and snipers. There was talk of rebel bodies having been bulldozed away, and the dome and minaret of the nearby mosque were demolished.
With Gadhafi’s men also on the march against rebels in the east, Western nations appeared in disarray over how to stop the bloodshed.
President Barack Obama said a no-fly zone over Libya to protect the civilian population from the Gadhafi regime’s fighter jets remains a possibility as “we are slowly tightening the noose” around Gadhafi, but he stopped short of moving toward military action.
He cited actions already taken, including getting American citizens and embassy workers out of the country, slapping tough United Nations sanctions on Libya and seizing $30 billion in Gadhafi’s assets.
The European Union, meanwhile, said a no-fly zone would need diplomatic backing from international organizations like the Arab League, which was to discuss the situation in Libya today in Cairo.
The capture of Zawiya, a coastal city of about 200,000 people that is located near an oil port and refineries, seals off a corridor around the capital and solidifies the government’s control over the western third of the country to the border with Tunisia. The government still faced a rebel challenge in Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, 125 miles southeast of Tripoli.
The government had claimed victory in Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli, on Wednesday, but the rebels who are seeking to oust Gadhafi said fighting was ongoing.
An Associated Press reporter, who was taken by the government with other journalists into the city on Friday, said the city was clearly in government control, with Libyan soldiers manning tanks and trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns.
A 43-year-old government employee said the shelling of the city started March 4 and was nonstop until Wednesday, the day the government claimed victory.
He said at least 24 of the protesters had been buried in the square but the pro-Gadhafi forces had used bulldozers to remove their bodies.
Libya’s Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Qaid said the death toll was 14, including rebels and army soldiers.
Anti-Gadhafi graffiti that had covered walls during a previous visit by the AP also had been painted over. Green flags and pictures of Gadhafi were wrapped around some buildings.
Zawiya’s fall to the opposition about a week into the uprising that began Feb. 15 illustrated the blazing progress of the movement. But Gadhafi has seized the momentum, battering opponents with airstrikes and artillery fire.
Inspired by the ouster of leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, Gadhafi’s opponents have attempted to hold protests every Friday for the past few weeks, but they have been met each time by a fierce retaliation from militiamen and no attempts were reported on Friday.