June 16, 2011 / 7:29 PM / 7 years ago

Libyan rebels prepare push on "lawless" Zlitan

* Rebels from Zlitan joining the fight

* Port city of Misrata trying to take rebellion to Tripoli

* Slow progress coming at heavy price

By Matt Robinson

DAFNIYA, Libya, June 16 (Reuters) - Rebels from the Libyan port city of Misrata say they are recruiting fighters from the government-held neighbouring town of Zlitan ahead of an advance on it, which would extend their rebellion west towards Tripoli.

Zlitan, just 160 km (100 miles) from Tripoli, is the next major town on the Mediterranean coast road to the capital from the rebel bastion of Misrata. Capturing it would be a major victory for the four-month-old rebellion.

“We are Zlitan people,” said a man who gave his name as Abdullah, one of a number of men sitting around a table near the front in Dafniya, on the highway west of Misrata’s oustkirts.

“We say to them (Zlitan residents), please, we want to fight together, Zlitan people with Misrata people.”

Senior rebels say about 200 fighters from Zlitan have joined their advance. The total could not be confirmed. Reuters spoke to Abdullah and two other rebels who said they came from Zlitan.

Their presence is important in a country where towns and cities are sensitive to any perceived move on them by outsiders. Gaddafi officials say the people of Zlitan would oppose rebels hailing from Misrata or cities further east.

The rebels who said they came from Zlitan described it as a lawless town. Pockets around the centre and the market district were held by armed residents against Gaddafi while other areas were being swept by forces loyal to the Libyan leader.

Abdullah, who described himself as a logistics officer for rebels on Misrata’s western front, said Gaddafi’s forces were sweeping districts of Zlitan, arresting people and seizing cars.

Another fighter, who said he had left Zlitan two weeks ago, said: “After eight in the evening you can’t even walk in Zlitan. There is no law.” He declined to give his name, fearing for the safety of relatives left behind.

“People are scared. They haven’t taken a decision yet because they are still waiting to see what’s going on.”

A third, who appeared to be in his late teens, said he had left Zlitan 11 days ago to join the fight.

The accounts could not be independently verified. Journalists do not have access to Zlitan. Gaddafi’s officials deny there has been serious unrest there but have a record of playing down the extent of opposition.

“WE WANT TO MOVE NOW”

The rebel side has also imposed restrictions on journalists, with some fighters saying a push on Zlitan is imminent.

Rebels are making slow progress through the olive groves and farmland of the coast west of Misrata, coming at some points to around 10 kilometres from Zlitan itself but suffering casualties in artillery exchanges with pro-Gaddafi forces.

An apparent lack of coordination with NATO has seen them relinquish some positions for fear jets flying at 15,000 feet will mistake them for pro-Gaddafi forces.

In recent days, the rebels have stepped up artillery fire from tanks hidden in fields and multiple-rocket launchers wheeled out onto the beach to pound pro-Gaddafi positions, possibly as a prelude to a ground offensive.

“We are trying to control our fighters,” said Abdullah. “But our fighters, like this man, they have brothers there,” he said, pointing to another rebel to his left.

“They want to move now. But NATO tells us, please, don’t go yet. We need them to bomb 10 targets, and they bomb only two. I told our fighters, please don’t go beyond this line because maybe NATO will shoot you too. But they don’t want to stay, they want to go.”

He said the rebel force had succeeded in sending guns into Zlitan, but that infiltration was becoming increasingly difficult.

Editing by Peter Graff

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