David Kirpatrick provides excellent reporting on the horrific battles in the crucial city of Zawiyah today:
Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s militia stormed the rebels controlling the town of Zawiyah on Saturday morning in what two residents described as a “massacre.”
“I am watching neighbors dying unarmed in front of their homes,” one resident said in a telephone interview, with the sounds of heavy weapons and machine-gun fire in the background. The resident said the militias were using tanks and heavy artillery, attacking from both the east and west gates of the town. “I don’t know how many are being killed, but I know my neighborhood is being killed,” the resident said.
In a telephone interview a little more than three hours after the attack began, another resident said: “Everything is burning. We don’t know from which side they are shooting us — from the buildings or from the streets. People are falling everywhere.”
But four hours after the fighting began, two rebels said in phone interviews that after heavy casualties, the battle was over. They said they held the center of town, but a tight military siege made it impossible to enter or leave. It was impossible to determine the number of casualties in the latest fighting. The attack started about 6 a.m., a night after Colonel Qaddafi’s government promised to bring a group of foreign journalists to see that Zawiyah, just 30 miles outside the capital, was again secure in government control.
The assault followed a day of brazen counterattacks by Colonel Qaddafi’s militia, which battled rebel forces on two fronts on Friday, firing on unarmed protesters in front of international news media and leaving the rebels seeking his ouster in disarray.
The militia’s actions seemed likely to stir renewed debate over international intervention to limit Colonel Qaddafi’s use of military power against his own citizens, possibly by imposing a no-flight zone.
The latest siege of Zawiyah began on Friday, when the elite Khamis Brigade, a militia named for the Qaddafi son who commands it, surrounded the town and opened fire with mortars, machine guns and other heavy weapons, witnesses said, in two separate skirmishes.
The first was arguably provoked by rebels who tried to attack the better-equipped militia because it was blocking rebel supporters from entering the town, the witnesses said. But the second took aim at a group of unarmed protesters who attempted to march through the militia lines toward the capital.
A rebel making a count at the Zawiyah hospital said that at least 35 rebels and an unknown number of militia soldiers died in the fighting on Friday, with more than 60 rebels missing and more than 50 wounded. Among the dead, rebels said, was Col. Hussein Darbouk, a defected Libyan officer who had been commanding rebel forces in the town.
Read the whole thing. Toward the end there’s an excellent section on Qaddafi’s attempts to manipulate foreign journalists.