RAS JDIR, Tunisia (Reuters) - The tanks of pro-Gaddafi forces were closing in on the rebel-held main square of Zawiyah on Wednesday and their snipers were shooting at anything that moved, rebels and residents said.
Bodies were lying unrecovered in the ruins of many buildings destroyed in air raids earlier in the week. There was no one in the streets of the centre of the city of 290,000 and it was not possible to verify the reports independently.
“We can see the tanks. The tanks are everywhere,” the rebel fighter told Reuters by phone from inside Zawiyah, which lies 50 km (30 miles) west of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
The fighter, named Ibrahim, said forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi were in control of the main road and the suburbs of Zawiyah, which in the past three days has become a focal point of a civil war on two fronts to end Gaddafi’s 41-year-old rule.
Rebel forces still controlled Zawiyah’s central square, and the enemy was about 1,500 metres (yards) away, Ibrahim said.
There were army snipers on top of most buildings, shooting whomever dared to leave their homes. Half of the city was hit by air attacks, including a mosque, he said.
Zawiyah was, briefly, described as a rebel stronghold in the uprising which erupted against Gaddafi last month. But it may now be on the verge of changing hands.
“The situation is not so good,” said a resident reporting by telephone. Civilians are pinned down in their houses, unable to flee from the mounting violence.
“No one can move outside their homes because they there are snipers everywhere,” he added.
Ibrahim said Gaddafi forces “have surrounded the square with snipers and tanks” but rebels were holding on to the central square area.
“It’s very scary. There are a lot of snipers,” he said.
“There are many dead people and they can’t even bury them. Zawiyah is deserted. There’s nobody on the streets. No animals, not even birds in the sky,” he said.
The heavy fighting has forced a shutdown of one of Libya’s biggest refineries, which is located near the town, a refinery official said on Wednesday.
“Heavy weapons have been fired nearby and we can’t run the refinery under these conditions,” the official told Reuters.
Ibrahim said rebels had killed a high-ranking cousin of Gaddafi in fighting earlier in the week.
“That’s why he bombed the city. They wanted to retrieve the body and they did.”
He added that a force of about 60 rebel fighters had gone out from the city to attack an army base on Tuesday some 20 km (12 miles) from Zawiyah.
“None of them has returned and we don’t know if they’re dead or alive. We haven’t heard from them,” he said.
Additional reporting by Maria Golovnina and Michael Georgy; writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Giles Elgood