Rebels besiege Libya’s last working oil refinery
Win in Zawiya would further isolate Khadafy
ZAWIYA, Libya - Dozens of opposition fighters surrounded Libya’s last functioning oil refinery yesterday and laid siege to about 100 government troops, part of a push that brought them closer to seizing this strategic western city.
A rebel victory in Zawiya could be a turning point in the six-month-old war and leave Moammar Khadafy nearly cornered in his increasingly isolated stronghold of Tripoli, the capital, just 30 miles to the east along the Mediterranean coast.
Rebel fighters are now closing in on the capital from the west and the south, while NATO controls the seas to the north. The opposition is in control of most of the eastern half of the country and has declared Benghazi, 620 miles east of Tripoli, as its de facto capital.
Yesterday’s fighting focused around the sprawling refinery complex on the western outskirts of Zawiya, a city of 200,000. The rebels, who began their assault on the refinery a day earlier, took control of the facility’s three-story administration building, tearing down the Khadafy regime’s green flag that flew over the grounds.
Desperate Khadafy troops cut off from the main government forces took cover in a residential compound and closed the gates to prevent workers from fleeing, rebels said. The troops barricaded themselves in and positioned snipers on rooftops. An Associated Press photographer inside the refinery with rebel troops heard occasional bursts of gunfire.
An oil engineer in the compound said in a telephone interview that about 100 Khadafy soldiers remained inside late yesterday afternoon. At least several dozen rebel fighters were also in the area. A rebel field commander in Zawiya, Osama Arusi, said his forces controlled parts of the complex.
The Libyan rebels made a dramatic advance Saturday out of their bases in the western mountains near Tunisia into Zawiya on the Mediterranean coast. Since then, they have taken control of 70 percent of the city, rebel commanders say, and have been slowly gaining ground in fierce battles with Khadafy’s forces.
The clashes at the refinery began Tuesday, then opposition fighters pulled out at nightfall and made a new push after daybreak, Arusi said.
Arusi said rebels wanted to take the refinery undamaged and have been negotiating with Khadafy soldiers inside the refinery since entering Zawiya on Saturday. He said that on Tuesday morning, some of the regime fighters, all locals, surrendered to the rebels after several days of negotiations.
The remaining Khadafy loyalists closed the gate of the residential compound for refinery workers and their families. It was unclear how many people were living there. Many of the workers were evacuated early in the civil war, which began in mid-February.
“If [the civilians] leave, we can deal with Khadafy’s guys with full force,’’ Arusi said. “So Khadafy’s guys don’t want them to leave. They keep them as protection.’’
About half a mile south of the refinery, a reporter saw two cars carrying civilians driving away from the refinery on an otherwise deserted road. Meanwhile, three pickup trucks loaded with fighters sped toward the refinery along the same road, to reinforce the troops.
Arusi said the clashes at the refinery shut down an oil pipeline to Tripoli, where a third of Libya’s 6 million people live.
“The pipeline from Zawiya to Tripoli has been switched off,’’ Arusi said. “The man who is responsible for switching the pipeline off said it is not working.’’
Neither a pipeline shutdown nor a capture of the 120,000 barrel-per-day refinery in Zawiya would have a major impact on Khadafy’s ability to secure fuel, analysts said.
The flow of crude to the refinery from fields in southwest Libya had largely halted since midsummer. The refinery was believed to be running at about one-third of its capacity, drawing mainly on crude oil in its storage tanks. At any rate, Zawiya produces mostly fuel oil, not gasoline, which Khadafy had trucked in mainly from Tunisia and, to a lesser extent, Algeria.
“In that sense, it’s more significant that [the rebels] have got control of the roads than the refinery,’’ said John Hamilton, a Libya energy expert with Cross-Border Information and a contributing editor of Africa Energy. “Strategically, that’s a more important gain for the rebels. Having control of the roads makes it much harder for Khadafy to get the petrol he needs’’ from Tunisia and Algeria.
More than 45 wounded rebel fighters arrived in Tunisia for medical care over the past 24 hours through the Zintan border crossing, Tunisia’s official TAP news agency reported.