Libyan rebels seize western oil refinery

Libyan rebels took control of an oil refinery in the western town of Zawiyah and blocked the main highway north to the capital on Thursday, further isolating Muammar Gaddafi's Tripoli stronghold.

Rebel advances in recent days have cut Gaddafi's forces off from their main supply routes following a months-long stalemate, putting the Libyan leader's 41-year rule under unprecedented pressure.

Small groups of rebel fighters occupied the inside of the Zawiyah refinery complex, about 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli on the highway linking Tripoli to Tunisia, with no sign of the pro-Gaddafi forces that had battled for the plant for days.

Doctors at a hospital a few kilometers (miles) south of Zawiyah said nine people were killed and at least 45 injured in fighting around the town and at the refinery on Wednesday, most of them rebels, and said pro-Gaddafi forces had hit a house near the hospital with Grad rockets.

Rebels also controlled the town of Garyan, which sits about 80 km south of Tripoli on the main highway, a Reuters reporter there said, adding that rebels had placed a T-34 tank and an anti-aircraft gun taken from Gaddafi forces in the main square.

"We took one tank and an anti-aircraft gun from Gaddafi's forces. Next, we will go to Tripoli," said one of the fighters, who called himself Mohammad.

A spokesman for Gaddafi played down recent rebel gains and said the government remained in control of the country.

"This is a crisis that will last a few days and then it will be -- God willing -- overcome," said Mussa Ibrahim in remarks carried by JANA news agency on Thursday. "We will push ahead and until we liberate the whole country."

Gaddafi's whereabouts are unknown.

Aided by NATO bombers, assault helicopters and a naval blockade, the rebels have transformed the battle in the last few days after many weeks of stalemate.

The United States also deployed two more Predator drones for surveillance operations over Libya, a U.S. official said on Wednesday. It was unclear how many drones the U.S. already had over the country.

In Brega, on the eastern front, rebel forces said they had suffered 18 killed and 33 wounded on Tuesday and Wednesday in their battle to dislodge Gaddafi forces from the oil port and refinery, where they have been fighting for many days.

The 69-year-old Gaddafi seems isolated with rebel forces closing in and vowing to enter Tripoli by the end of the month.

Mass Grave

A rebel spokesman from the opposition-held city of Misrata to the east of Tripoli reported that rebels had found the buried bodies of civilians they said had been slaughtered by Gaddafi's forces.

"We discovered a mass grave containing 150 bodies in Tawargha. These are the corpses of civilians kidnapped from Misrata by Gaddafi's loyalists," he said. Rebels found a video "showing kidnappers cutting the throats of people," he said.

The spokesman said rebel forces were now outside a place called Hisha about 100 km (60 miles) west of Misrata on the road to Tripoli. "They are now on the coastal road," he said.

Zawiyah's refinery is one of the few sources of fuel for Gaddafi's troops and the people of Tripoli. A rebel commander said the pipeline linking it to Tripoli was severed on Tuesday.

If the pipeline to Tripoli is cut, "that would imply dire consequences for the population in Tripoli in terms of fuel supplies needed for the city to keep operating," said Fernando Calado of the International Organisation for Migration.

Calado said there had been a sharp increase in the past week in the number of foreign nationals asking to be evacuated. He estimated that more than 300,000 foreigners remain in Tripoli, including many from the Philippines and Sri Lanka, as well as Libya's neighbors Chad, Egypt and Tunisia.

"We have received 2,000 requests at this point. The potential caseload is huge. We're exploring the possibility of land, sea and air evacuations," he told Reuters.

Libya's rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) denies holding secret talks with Gaddafi to end the war. But suspicions persist that some form of end-game negotiation may be going on.

The NTC insists Gaddafi should step down and leave Libya, saying talks ignoring this basic demand would be "unthinkable."

[Source: By Yvonne Bell, Reuters, Zawyah, 18Aug11]

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