Kadafi’s forces pound Libyan rebel stronghold

Embattled Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi’s security forces launched a sustained assault against a rebel-controlled city near the capital Friday, and scores of civilians were killed in the fighting, witnesses said.

The initiative to retake Zawiya, the city 25 miles west of Tripoli that was seized by rebels four days ago, reportedly claimed the life of a leading rebel commander as forces under the command of one of Kadafi’s sons, Khamis Moammar Kadafi, unleashed mortars and machine-gun fire.

“We have counted 30 dead civilians. The hospital was full. They could not find space for the casualties,” Zawiya resident Mohamed told Reuters by telephone.

A witness living in central Zawiya told The Times that the fighting between rebels and the government began Thursday night and continued throughout the day Friday. “I can’t leave the house,” the man said by telephone.


A Kadafi spokesman vowed to retake the city “tonight,” but witnesses said rebels retained control of the four gates of the city.

Hussein Darbouk, a renegade colonel from Kadafi’s army who was leading rebel forces in the city, was slain by fire from anti-aircraft guns, activist Alla Zawi told Associated Press.

In eastern Libya, government forces and rebels continued to battle in the oil port city of Ras Lanuf, the news service reported, with residents saying that explosions could be heard as both sides battled to control an airstrip.

In Tripoli, hundreds of protesters challenged Kadafi’s hold on the capital when they chanted for his downfall after prayers in the Tajoura district, but at least 14 trucks carrying security forces rushed past checkpoints to respond within minutes.

Kadafi loyalists used tear gas to disperse the demonstrators. Some witnesses told news organizations that the pro-government forces used live ammunition, but the reports could not be independently verified. Foreign journalists attempting to reach the site were stopped and aggressively searched by militiamen loyal to the longtime strongman.

Meanwhile, unrest continued across the Middle East from Libya to the Arabian Sea. In Yemen, the government opposition said President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled the Arabian Peninsula state for 32 years, rejected its proposed transition plan, which would have him step down after the end of 2011

“The president rejected the proposal and is holding on to his previous offer,” the opposition’s rotating president, Mohammed Mutawaki, said Friday, according to Reuters. Saleh’s office said earlier this week that he had reached “initial agreement” to step down by the end of the year.

In Iraq, security forces used water cannons and batons to disperse protesters in the southern oil hub of Basra on Friday as thousands of Iraqis rallied across the nation against corrupt officials and poor basic services, Reuters reported.

Demonstrations against a shortage of jobs, electricity, water and other basic services have been rising among Iraqis as they have become inspired by protests across the Arab world.

In central Basra, about 700 protesters near the provincial council building were forcibly removed by Iraqi soldiers and a Reuters reporter said some were beaten.

In Egypt, demonstrators were exuberant a day after the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, a former air force general and one of the most potent holdover symbols of the deposed Hosni Mubarak regime. His replacement, Essam Sharaf, received a warm welcome when he addressed the crowd, promising to aggressively fulfill its demands.

Special correspondent Alexandra Sandels in Beirut, Lebanon, contributed to this article.