Libyan rebels continued to close in on Tripoli Friday as they fought for control of the strategic coastal cities of Zawiyah and Ziltan, which lie to the west and east of the capital, while claiming that Muammar Gaddafi’s former deputy had defected.
Libyan rebels fought fierce battles in two coastal cities on either side of Tripoli in a drive to topple Muammar Gaddafi, and also claimed the Libyan leader’s former No. 2 had defected.
Sustained blasts from rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and anti-aircraft guns rang out on Friday in the centre of Zawiyah, a city on the coastal highway 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli that the rebels entered this week, in a clash that killed at least two.
As they pushed to consolidate control of the city and its strategic oil refinery, rebels in Zawiyah’s central square exchanged heavy fire with Gaddafi forces holed up inside a nearby hospital before driving them out, Reuters witnesses said.
East of the capital, opposition forces fought bloody street battles in the city of Zlitan but suffered heavy casualties, a Reuters reporter there said. A rebel spokesman said 32 rebel fighters were killed, with 150 wounded.
Rebel advances have cut off Tripoli from its main supply routes, putting Gaddafi’s four-decade rule under heavy pressure.
But Gaddafi’s information minister, Moussa Ibrahim, said late on Friday the government’s military retained the upper hand in both Zawiyah and Zlitan and scorned what he described as ‘bands of insurgents’.
In a possible psychological blow to Gaddafi’s government, rebels said his former deputy Abdel Salam Jalloud had defected to rebel-held territory in the Western Mountains.
Jalloud was a member of the junta that staged a 1969 coup bringing Gaddafi to power, and was seen as the North African oil producer state’s second in command before falling out of Gaddafi’s favour in the 1990s.
“He is definitely here in Zintan. He is under the control of the military council here,” Massoud Ali, a local rebel spokesman, told Reuters. Rebels showed Reuters a video of a person they identified as Jalloud standing among them earlier in the day.
Libyan Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim declined comment about Jalloud’s whereabouts or his political allegiances, but said if Jalloud had left the country he hoped he would help facilitate a negotiated end to the conflict.
It was unclear how close Jalloud was to Gaddafi after the 1990s, when he reportedly was stripped of his passport and put under government surveillance following a disagreement with Gaddafi.
With rebels pushing on the ground, NATO has pressed on with its campaign from the air and its warplanes pounded targets in the capital overnight.
Gaddafi’s government has blamed NATO bombings for scores of civilian deaths and said 27 people were killed in the most recent raids on Tripoli. NATO accuses Gaddafi forces of housing military assets near civilians.
In another sign the fighting is hitting closer to Gaddafi’s inner circle, the brother of the spokesman who has served as the Tripoli government’s public face, was reported killed in a front-line city. The government blamed NATO attack helicopters.
Libyan officials separately brought journalists to a residential district where a compound of several large buildings was blasted to pieces. Neighbours said it belonged to Abdullah al-Senussi, Gaddafi’s brother-in-law and head of intelligence, though a government official said Senussi was not there at the time.
NBC News reported Gaddafi was making preparations to leave Libya with his family for possible exile in Tunisia, but that it was unclear if he would follow through. NBC said the information came from U.S. officials who cited intelligence reports.
Deputy Foreign Minister Kaim reiterated the government stance that Gaddafi would not depart Libya, at the same time saying Libya was in favour of any negotiations to end the fighting.
“But the United States and other key players have to give their blessing to these negotiations,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Jemini Pandya, said the operation to rescue thousands of Egyptians and other foreigners trapped in Tripoli by the latest fighting would begin within days.
“We are looking at all options available, but it will probably have to be by sea,” she told a Geneva news conference.
More than 600,000 of up to 2.5 million foreigners, mostly Asian and African migrant workers, have fled Libya in six months of fighting. But thousands remained in Tripoli, which until this week was calm and a safe two-hour drive from Tunisia.
The route has been cut since the rebels entered Zawiyah, which lies on the coastal highway, six days ago. In Zawiyah, medics at another local hospital said two dead and three wounded had been taken there from the recent fighting.
On Thursday they took the neighbouring town of Sabratha, and on Friday they seized the nearby town of Surman.
Several hundred rebels and their supporters gathered on the streets of Surman, just off the highway, to celebrate the victory, flying the rebel green, red and black flag.
In New York, Human Rights Watch published a report on its website saying Libyan government forces appeared to have executed 10 protesters following an anti-government demonstration in the town of Bani Walid, southwest of Misrata, on May 28.
HRW said it had interviewed six men “with knowledge of the day’s events, including three who saw government forces fire on the demonstrators”.
There was no way to immediately verify the report.