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Libyan rebels fighting dictator Muammar Gaddafi made their biggest gains in months recently when they battled their way into two strategic towns near Tripoli that control the dictator’s supply lines, cutting him off from outside help and threatening the city with encirclement.
Last weekend, the rebels occupied the center of Zawiya, a coastal town of 291,000 only 50 kilometres from Gaddafi’s Tirpoli stronghold. Zawiya sits on the pro-Gaddafi forces’ supply route from Tunisia, a critical artery for the Libyan leader’s survival, so government reinforcements were sent immediately to the threatened city and drove the rebel fighters in a counter-attack from its center. Since then, artillery bombardments and snipers have kept the rebels from advancing, but the supply route has been made “largely unusable.”
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that Gaddafi’s days are numbered, that his isolation grows more extreme as each day passes,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Monday.
Zawiya was one of the early cities to rise in rebellion against Gaddafi. Situated in an oil-producing region, it contains Libya’s only oil refineries. Last February, shortly after the uprising began, the Zawiya tribe threatened to cut “the flow of oil into western Libya unless the authorities stopped their deadly crackdown against Libyan protesters.” In what is largely a tribal conflict in Libya, the Zawiya have been called one of the 30 tribes and clans that have “a demonstrable influence on the country.” Gaddafi, however, soon retook the town by force, after which his secret police was reported to have conducted large-scale purges.
Gharyan was the second strategic town the rebels seized in recent days. Located in the mountains west of Tripoli, Gharyan sits astride Libya’s main North-South road, over which supplies for Gaddafi’s forces were being trucked in from Algeria through southern Libya.
Berber fighters from the Nafusa Mountains began the offensive to capture Gharyan early last month and are the ones responsible for the rebels’ recent successes after months of back-and-forth battles that resulted in a stalemate. While Gaddafi’s forces held the rebels in check at Brega in the east and at Misrata in the west, the Berbers advanced north out of their western mountains to the coast at Zawiya. The Berbers are linguistically and ethnically different than the Arabs and have suffered years of discrimination at Gaddafi’s hands, which caused them to side with the rebels.
Gaddafi, however, will do his best to reverse these rebel victories and throw everything he has into the battle to recover these two towns, like he did earlier with Brega. But a failure to retake Zawiya and Ghaaryan and re-establish the stalemate will not only mean that his isolation is almost complete and his forces threatened with encirclement, but that the “Battle for Tripoli” may soon begin.
This is not a development that anyone wants, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries that have been supporting the rebels with air power and weapons. With his back, and that of his family’s, to the wall, NATO and the rebels know Gaddafi’s resistance will only stiffen the closer the fighting gets to Tripoli. It is estimated that 20,000 Libyans have already died in the conflict. And once inside the city’s confines, combat will cause the number of civilian casualties to increase dramatically. Some of Tripoli’s more than one million residents are now reportedly heading for the Tunisian border out of fear their city is about to become a battleground.
“We are afraid of whatever is coming,” said an accountant fleeing Tripoli.
Gaddafi most likely believes he has no other option than to fight to the death. Although NATO has offered to allow him to remain in Libya if he steps down, Gaddafi is fully aware that ceasing to resist will be his death sentence. There are too many people in the country who want to kill him and his family for the cruelties he has inflicted on them. Many of the 20,000 estimated dead in the conflict, for example, are civilians thought to have been killed by Gaddafi’s secret police. A large number of Libyans were also killed and tortured in his prisons during his 40 years of rule. This makes for a lot of relatives seeking revenge, a justifiable action under the Arab tribal code existing in Libya.
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