Libyan rebels inch closer to Zlitan breakthrough

Sun Jul 31, 2011 5:52pm GMT

By Mussab Al-Khairalla

ZLITAN, Libya, July 31 (Reuters) - Libyan rebel fighters from Misrata have pushed closer to entering the coastal town of Zlitan after 48 hours of fierce fighting in which at least 27 fighters have been killed on the frontline.

Television footage obtained by Reuters showed rebels making quick advances on Saturday, firing machineguns and engaging in close combat fighting with forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi on the eastern outskirts of the town.

Government soldiers retaliated early on Sunday, pushing the rebels back slightly. Overall, the rebels are 3 km (two miles) closer to Zlitan than they have been for the past 10 days.

Sensing an opportunity to break the stalemate, rebels pounded Gaddafi loyalists with mortars throughout the day and sent more fighters to the frontline in a bid to overrun their defences. But 14 fighters were killed and more than 20 were wounded on Sunday -- the highest death toll in the past few weeks of fighting around rebel-held Misrata.

"The war is now a street war, not a war fought in open spaces. What we need now is to organise our frontline completely," said local rebel commander Areesh Aafi, standing among bullet casings scattered across a rebel base near the front.

"We took some equipment and vehicles from Gaddafi forces," he said.

Capturing Zlitan would raise flagging rebel morale following months of stalemate across Libya. It would also divert attention from recent violence in Benghazi as Western countries backing the rebels seek assurances that Libya won't slip into an Iraq-like quagmire if Gaddafi's 41-year rule comes to an end.

FRAGILE ADVANCE   Continued...

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