ZAWIYAH, Libya, Aug. 18 (UPI) — A fierce battle raged Thursday as rebels and Gadhafi-regime loyalists fought for control of Libya’s only working oil refinery, residents and witnesses said.
The battle for the 120,000-barrel-a-day refinery in Zawiyah could be decisive in determining whether the rebels win control of the strategic Mediterranean coast city 30 miles west of Tripoli — on a vital route between the capital and the Tunisian border — and are able to tighten a noose around the Libyan capital, Britain’s The Daily Telegraph reported.
The rebel soldiers — who faced snipers as well as government rocket and artillery attacks — vowed to take down the Gadhafi regime’s green flag flying over the refinery and replace it with the rebel tricolor flying over most other parts of Zawiyah despite continuing clashes in the center of the city and areas immediately east toward the capital, the newspaper said.
Zawiyah has been the site of some of the fiercest fighting in the Libyan uprising, with Gadhafi forces reported to have used air power and tanks to all but destroy the city of more than 90,000. Children were reported shot while sitting in front of their homes.
The rebel forced claimed Wednesday to have managed to shut down the refinery’s pipelines leading to Tripoli after the plant manager fled Tuesday night, the Telegraph said.
Rebel field commanders told their troops it was important not to damage the oil infrastructure in battle because the refinery will be crucial to establishing a functioning oil system, the Telegraph reported.
More than 100 Gadhafi loyalists stationed at the refinery fought about 200 rebel soldiers from inside pipelines, ports and storage tanks as well as other vital areas to force refinery damage in the battle, the opposition and witnesses said.
Salwa Ahmed, a resident of the refinery managers’ residential complex, told the Telegraph she was fleeing because “the Gadhafi forces show no sign of backing down.”
“It will not be safe,” she said.
About 2,000 families from Zawiyah and other cities near the fighting passed through a rebel checkpoint Wednesday, rebel officials registering the names told The New York Times.
Gadhafi troops controlled a key hospital just east of the city on the road to Tripoli, with government snipers firing from the roof and doctors unable to enter or leave the hospital, Britain’s The Guardian reported.