Libyan rebels edge toward Tripoli assault

Libyan rebels, who are battling Qaddafi's forces for control of the country's last functioning oil refinery, say they'll be in Tripoli by the end of August.

Giulio Petrocco/AP
A Libyan rebel runs for cover from sniper fire during fighting in the town of Zawiya, roughly 30 miles west of Tripoli, Libya, Tuesday, Aug. 16. The day Libyan rebels advanced into the strategic city of Zawiya, Muammar Qaddafi's forces clamped down on the local hospital.

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After making stunning advances toward Tripoli, the stronghold of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, rebel fighters are locked in a battle with Colonel Qaddafi's forces for control of the oil refinery in the nearby town of Zawiyah.

The refinery is the last functioning one in the country, although its output has been severely decreased because the flow of crude oil from fields in other parts of the country has been almost completely halted. Capturing the refinery would be more a symbolic victory for the rebels than a strategic one, the Associated Press reports.

"The rebel advance is tightening the noose around Tripoli," according to AP. While rebel troops close in from the west and south of the city, Tripoli's port is blockaded by NATO. The rebels are also trying to sever all the supply lines to Tripoli and claim that they have already cut the gas pipeline into the city. Most of the gasoline Qaddafi needs in Tripoli is brought in from Tunisia and Algeria via roads to the south and west, not from Zawiyah.

NATO spokesman Col. Roland Lavoie said that the rebels' progress in the last couple days is "the most significant anti-Qaddafi territorial gain we have seen in months." He says that the rebels are taking control of all the key approaches to Tripoli, CNN reports. However, Libyan state television reported that Qaddafi's forces, supported by tribal fighters, had secured the coastal road into Tripoli and pushed rebel forces out of the nearby city of Sabratha, which rebels claim to control.

Rebel military spokesman Col. Ahmed Banni told CNN that they expect to enter Tripoli by the end of August. Rebels there were recently given arms, but have been told to wait until "zero hour" to launch any attacks.

As Qaddafi's grip eroded, the UN special envoy for Libya met in Tunisia with Qaddafi regime officials and possibly also representatives of the Libyan rebel government. Abdel-Elah al-Khatib, the former Jordanian foreign minister, said that he was meeting with representatives from both sides, but the National Transitional Council denied that it sent anyone to the meeting, The Telegraph reports.

The rebels say that they had made so much progress against Qaddafi that they no longer need to concede on their demand that Qaddafi leave Libya. The rebel ambassador to France said that they expect to declare victory by the end of August.

Telegraph Middle East Correspondent Richard Spencer is optimistic about their chances for victory, although he sketches a longer timeline for success.

[An end of August victory] is probably too optimistic, but it is undeniable that they are in their best position to enforce victory since the early days of the uprising in February.

Then, Col Gaddafi made a key decision that turned the tide in his favour – unlike neighbouring dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt, he would not flinch from the use of force.

Now he has nowhere to turn. His closest aides and family have stuck by him, but political figures are deserting him one by one and his apparatus is being slowly degraded by Nato bombing and defeat on the ground.

His troops can still fight with gusto, but are not strong enough to defend all three fronts of the war at once. Rebel advances in the east and around Misurata are slow, but in the west they have cut off his only supply routes out of the country – to Tunisia to the west and Algeria to the south.

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