Gadhafi's back against the wall / Libyan rebels closing on Tripoli
"Gadhafi's days are numbered," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State visiting rebels says. "The best case scenario is for Gadhafi to step down now ... that's the best protection for civilians."
ZAWIYA, Libya - Libyan rebels expelled government forces from the strategic western city of Zawiya Saturday, a major victory for the opposition in their march on Col. Muammar Gadhafi's stronghold of Tripoli. The territory remaining under the Libyan ruler's control has been shrinking dramatically in the past three weeks, with opposition fighters advancing on the capital, a metropolis of two million people, from the west, south and east.
Zawiya, a coastal city just 30 miles (50 kilometers ) west of Tripoli, is the biggest prize so far in the rebels' NATO-assisted offensive. The rebels also claimed to have captured two more towns - Zlitan in the west and Brega in the east.
However, later Saturday, rebel military spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani said his troops fell back in Brega, losing the industrial section of the key oil port to Gadhafi's forces. Brega, home to the site where the country's main oil fields feed into for refining, has repeatedly changed hands in the six-month-old civil war.
Despite the losses in Brega, the momentum now appears to have firmly swung in the rebels' favor after months of near deadlock. The Libyan opposition also received a major political boost Friday with the defection of Abdel-Salam Jalloud, a close associate of Gadhafi who took part in the 1969 coup that brought the Libyan ruler to power.
On Saturday, rebel fighters and pickup trucks poured into Zawiya's main square. Signs of the fierce fighting over the past week were all around: Pockmarked and shattered facades of buildings ringing the plaza and bodies of two pro-Gadhafi soldiers lying on the ground.
For more than a week, fighting had focused on two main streets here, with Gadhafi snipers positioned on top of Zawiya's hospital, a bank and a hotel overlooking the main square.
Government forces appeared to have fled those strategic positions and others in the eastern half of the city they had held until Friday. In the distance, the rumble of shelling could be heard to the east.
Everywhere in Zawiya, there were traces of recent fighting. Nearly every window in the hotel, banks and government office buildings that line the square had been shattered, and bullet and shrapnel holes marred every wall. The bodies of the pro-Gadhafi fighters lay in the central plaza, with blankets thrown over them and the sidewalk stained red.
Opposition fighters elsewhere also reported major advances. Further west, rebels also claimed to have taken control of Zlitan, 90 miles (140 kilometers ) southeast of Tripoli.
In the U.K., Maj. Gen. Nick Pope, the Chief of the Defense Staff's Communications Officer, said that RAF planes - as part of NATO's mission in Libya - had attacked two staging areas used by Gadhafi forces in Zlitan.
He said Saturday that RAF aircraft returned to Tripoli on Friday evening and bombed the main operations room for the Ministry of Interior's security forces, which NATO intelligence had identified as located in a compound in the Abu Salim district.
Hundreds of miles east of Tripoli, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman visited the rebels' de facto capital of Benghazi Saturday to announce the opening of the U.S. Embassy in the city.
"Gadhafi's days are numbered," Feltman said. "The best case scenario is for Gadhafi to step down now ... that's the best protection for civilians."