Rebels and forces loyal to Moammar Kadafi were battling near a strategic port and refinery city in western Libya on Saturday, forcing the closure of a crucial highway linking Tripoli with the Tunisian border, the government said.
The battles reported on the outskirts of Zawiya, just 30 miles west of Tripoli, involve the most sustained fighting close to the capital in several months.
The renewed unrest marks the latest blow for a regime already holding off rebel forces on several fronts and suffering daily bombing raids from a NATO-led alliance that includes the United States. New explosions rocked the capital Saturday, the latest in an intensified series of raids on Tripoli.
Rebels seized control of swaths of Zawiya and were engaged in a fierce battle with government troops, said Shamsiddin Abdulmolah, a rebel spokesman in Benghazi, the opposition stronghold in eastern Libya.
The government downplayed the fighting. Spokesman Musa Ibrahim said the rebel fighters consisted of about 25 guerrillas who never entered Zawiya proper, only reaching its outskirts. Some were killed and the rest were trapped, he said late Saturday. The fighters infiltrated from western mountain areas now largely under rebel control, authorities said.
But the guerrillas’ ability to cut off the coastal highway would appear to pose a new strategic challenge for Kadafi’s government.
In recent weeks, officials have declared Zawiya firmly under regime control after crushing a fierce rebellion there in March.
However, Saturday’s clashes forced a government bus carrying a group of departing Western journalists to the Tunisian border to be diverted away from Zawiya.
The coastal highway through Zawiya is a key artery, and it has assumed even greater importance since NATO maritime patrols have stopped many container ships from delivering cargo, including gasoline, to Libya. The country faces an extreme fuel shortage, and Zawiya is home to the nation’s largest functioning refinery
Elsewhere in Libya, government forces were holding off the advance of opposition fighters from the rebel-held city of Misurata, about 120 miles east of Tripoli. Rebels there have been trying to push west toward the capital but have met stiff government resistance in the rural enclave of Dafniya. According to Abdulmolah, the rebel spokesman, 35 rebels have been killed and 120 injured in battles near Dafniya.
A NATO spokesman, Wing Commander Mike Bracken, confirmed Friday that rebels had secured control of much of the Berber highland zone southwest of Tripoli, including the cities of Zintan and Yafran, the latter about 70 miles from the capital.
Rebels control much of eastern Libya, while Kadafi holds sway in much of the west.
Rebels and their Western allies have called on Kadafi to relinquish control after more than four decades in power. He has refused and vowed to fight to the death.
Special correspondent Amro Hassan in Cairo contributed to this report.