Rebels poised to cut off Tripoli
Fighting could spread soon to Libyan capital
ZAWIYA, Libya - Libya’s rebels threatened to isolate Tripoli by blocking key supply routes and cutting oil pipelines yesterday after a dramatic weekend advance put them in the strongest position to attack Moammar Khadafy’s stronghold since the 6-month-old civil war began.
In Washington, the Obama administration said the United States was encouraged by the rebel advances and hoped they had broken a monthslong stalemate with Khadafy’s forces.
“We are closing the roads for Khadafy so there is no way for him to bring anything to Tripoli,’’ said Jumma Dardira, a rebel field commander.
The rebel drive was raising fears among Tripoli residents over the prospect that fighting might soon reach the capital. Long convoys of cars carrying civilians from the capital and other cities along the coast headed south to the western mountain range, a rebel stronghold near the border with Tunisia now considered a safe haven.
In an apparent high-level defection, the head of Libyan public security and a former interior minister flew to Egypt on a private plane with nine family members. Nassr al-Mabroul Abdullah entered on a tourist visa. If confirmed, it would be the latest in a string of defections by prominent officials in Khadafy’s regime.
A US military official said government forces fired a Scud missile for the first time in the fighting with rebels, but it landed in the desert about 50 miles east of Brega and hurt no one. The launch was detected by US forces shortly after midnight. Rebel and regime forces have battled over Brega, a strategic port city, and control has gone back and forth between the two sides.
The rebels pushed into the strategic city of Zawiya on Saturday, which brought them within 30 miles of Tripoli, the closest they have gotten.
After three days of fierce battles for Zawiya, a city of 200,000 on the Mediterranean coast, rebel commanders said they controlled the south and west of the city and were fighting for the refineries. Oil-rich Libya’s only functioning refineries are in Zawiya.
Nuri el-Bouaisi, an oil production engineer in the city, said rebels had cut off all four pipelines that transport gasoline and diesel fuel to Tripoli. The claim could not be verified.
The rebels are also determined to cut key supply routes to Tripoli from the Ras Ajdir border crossing with Tunisia in the west and from the south, where Libya borders Chad and Niger. These are critical lifelines with NATO imposing a no-fly zone.
Over the past two days, a number of rebel officials have claimed that they either cut or were close to cutting those two routes. That could not be immediately confirmed.
In addition to gaining a foothold in Zawiya, the rebels claimed Sunday to have taken two towns near Tripoli on those key supply roads: Gharyan, 50 miles south of the capital, and Surman, less than 10 miles west of Zawiya.
Dardira, at a defensive position just south of Surman, said rebels were still clashing in the Sabratha area, 20 miles west of Zawiya on the coast.
Mohammed Bilkheir, an accountant fleeing Tripoli with his family, said they planned to stay with relatives in the western mountains, fearing battles in the capital. “We are afraid of whatever is coming,’’ he said.
Tripoli residents heading south said living in the capital has become increasingly difficult, with rising food prices, shortages of fuel and cash, as well as power cuts. Drivers took back roads to avoid being stopped by regime forces, they said.
“It’s becoming increasingly clear that Khadafy’s days are numbered,’’ said Jay Carney, White House press secretary. US officials speaking on condition of anonymity say there is reason to think the rebels may now have enough momentum to wrest full control of the country. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the fast-moving developments.