Western news agencies say Libyan rebels have taken control of the strategic western city of Zawiya, tightening a siege around Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s stronghold in the capital, Tripoli.
Reporters who visited Zawiya on Saturday said rebels were occupying the central square and other positions formerly held by pro-Gadhafi forces, who continued shelling the city from positions to the east.
The rebels fought their way into Zawiya earlier this week and said Thursday they had captured its oil refinery, which supplies fuel to Tripoli, 50 kilometers to the east.
In another apparent victory for the rebels, a senior rebel commander said Saturday his fighters were in full control of the eastern town of Brega after seizing its industrial sector, which also contains a major oil refinery. The commander’s claim could not be verified independently.
Rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces have fought in and around Brega for months, with control changing hands several times. A rebel seizure of its oil refinery would cut off another key source of fuel to Gadhafi’s forces farther west. The rebels captured Brega’s residential areas earlier this month.
Gadhafi has seen the areas under his control shrink significantly in recent weeks as rebels advance on Tripoli from the west, east and south after six months of fighting to end his four-decade autocratic rule.
NATO warplanes have been supporting the rebels by bombing pro-Gadhafi forces to enforce a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing military action to protect Libyan civilians from government attacks.
In other developments, two more Gadhafi aides appear to have defected to the rebel side. Tunisian officials say the Libyan leader’s former number-two, Abdel-Salam Jalloud, departed from Tunisian island of Djerba on a flight to Italy on Saturday. A day earlier, Libyan rebels said Jalloud, a former prime minister, had joined their ranks.
Tunisian officials also said Libyan Oil Minister Omran Abukraa has decided not to return to Libya after a recent mission to Italy. A Tunisian official told the Reuters news agency on Saturday that Abukraa was in Tunisia.