As Libyan Rebels Advance, Civilians Flee The Coast
After weeks with little movement on the battlefield, the dynamic of the Libyan war has changed.
As the rebels came charging down from the Western Mountains and pushed into the important coastal town of Zawiya, they are no longer the ones who appear vulnerable.
Increasingly, Moammar Gadhafi's strongholds, including the capital Tripoli, appear isolated.
Zawiya, which is just 30 miles down the coast from Tripoli, has been the scene of fierce clashes for several days. The rebels have now established a presence in many parts of the town, but Gadhafi's fighters are still active and have been clinging to an oil refinery – the last one under the control of the Libyan leader.
The current fighting is driving civilians out of Zawiya, and the expectation of future battles has created something of an exodus from Tripoli.
In Zawiya on Wednesday, men stood patiently in line to give their names and identification numbers in order to register with the rebels. The families sat in hot cars, waiting for the process to be completed.
"The war is going to Tripoli," said rebel Hakim Ali. "The people know a big battle is going to happen in Tripoli." Ali said that perhaps 2,000 families had registered with the rebels on Wednesday.
Zawiya Is Gateway To Tunisia
Zawiya is important because it sits astride the coastal road that allows goods to flow from nearby Tunisia to Tripoli. But the rebel advance to the coast means that little or nothing is now traveling this road. A huge power plant that supplied much of the capital's electricity was taken by the rebels late last month. And the capital is feeling the squeeze.
For weeks, Tripoli was receiving less and less electricity, and on Wednesday there was none, according to departing resident Farouk Sherwin. He also said that when he went in a shop in Tripoli there was only milk that was past its expiration date.
Sherwin said he and his family left the capital on Wednesday with nothing but a few clothes and a bit of food. They intentionally abandoned all their other belongings because they did not want to tip anyone off that they were actually leaving the city for good.
In Zawiya, the rebels have been making gains, but are still facing a difficult fight. Driving around in the town on Wednesday, a rocket landed nearby.
The rebels say Gadhafi's forces are waging indiscriminate rocket attacks at the city. In addition, the government forces have established sniper nests in several areas that are impeding the rebel advance. This is a city that is still far from full rebel control.
Hospital Is Filled With Wounded
The wounded were being ferried in large numbers to a nearby village on the outskirts of the city. Most were suffering either shrapnel or bullet wounds. Doctors said they lack basic supplies. The floor was smeared with blood and the injured were left in hallways to recover because there weren't enough rooms.
One of the injured, Azzadine Galfaqt, was wearing a traditional white robe that had been splattered red from his wounds. He said he was praying at a mosque at the city's entrance when a rocket burst through a wall and exploded.
Though the casualties have been high, he said Zawiya residents have been preparing for this battle for many months. Earlier this year, an uprising in Zawiya was stamped out by Gadhafi's army. Since then, government opponents have been biding their time. For the past few months, rebels were using boats to smuggle guns to opposition cells inside the city.
They were only light weapons, brought in from other coastal cities like Misrata and Benghazi. The opposition cells buried the weapons and were then forced to wait as Gadhafi's troops continued to hold Zawiya.
But now that the rebels have come down from the mountains and reached Zawiya, the men in the city are joining with them to battle Gadhafi's troops. Galfaqt said the rebels would soon finish off the government soldiers.
But some doctors are less optimistic.
For months now, doctors like Assem Bashir Shaiby have been patching up broken bodies and burying those who did not survive. Asked if the fight for Zawiya would be the last battle, he said, "No. I think there are a lot of battles still."