Muammar Gaddafi’s forces pounded rebels near their port-city redoubt in western Libya today.
But opposition fighters fought their way back into another Mediterranean city near the Tunisian border, a surprising resurgence in their nearly four-month battle oust the North African strongman.
Anti-Gaddafi sentiment also was building in the once quiescent southern city of Sabha, where young men and members of a big anti-government tribe were protesting in the streets and readying their weapons – some brought in from rebel forces in the north --to join the fight.
The lightly populated south of the country was long believed solidly behind Gaddafi. Large numbers of the population in Sabha, for example, were originally from Chad, Niger and Sudan and brought to Libya by Gadhafi in the 1980s. They were given government stipends and jobs in return for mercenary support of his regime.
Many of those men now have gone north to fight with government forces, leaving behind heavily armed and restive young men who are native to the region and the anti-Gaddafi Awlad Suleiman tribe, the largest in the city and a force throughout the country.
Near Misrata, the major rebel stronghold 125 miles east of Tripoli, forces under the command of Gaddafi’s sons Khamis and al-Moatassem and top aide Abdullah al-Senoussi have killed nearly 40 rebel fighters in intense shelling over the past three days.
Government forces have the city surrounded on all sides but the north, where the residents and rebels have access to the Mediterranean Sea for supplies and food through Libya’s major port. Rebels have beaten back several government attempts to retake the city.
Gaddafi forces are fighting hard to keep rebels bottled up in the city and to prevent a breakout toward Tripoli. Government troops are using tanks, artillery and incendiary rockets against rebel forces massed in Dafniya, about 18 miles west of Misrata.
In the far west of the country near the border with Tunisia, the uprising to end Gaddafi’s 40-year rule appeared to be gaining momentum with rebels advancing in heavy street-by-street fighting in Zawiya.
Reports from an AP reporter passing through the city late on Saturday said the government had been forced to close the important coastal road from Tripoli to the Tunisian border because of fighting. The highway is Gaddafi’s one remaining supply route.
In a surprising show of resilience rebels have regrouped and moved deeply into the city, just 18 miles west of the capital. They took the city in March but were brutally driven out two weeks later.
Since the rebel advance began on yesterday, about 30 rebels have been killed and 20 wounded in the clashes, said Kamal, a rebel originally from Zawiya, who fled after Gaddafi forces crushed the rebellion there in mid-March.
He said that Nato aircraft had attacked government tanks and artillery advancing on Zawiya from Tripoli. The city’s central hospital and Mutred and Harsha districts in the west of the city were solidly under rebel control. Gaddafi forces are being encircled in Martyrs Square, taking fire from three sides, he said.
Residents say protests in Sabha, the southern city, began a week ago.
“For days now, there are daily demonstrations in Sabha,” said former Sabha resident Abdel Rahman Barkuli, who fled to Cairo. “The security grip has been loosened. Young people feel freer, that they can express themselves. There are whole areas of the city now under the control of the protesters.”