Video: Rebels gain ground in Libya

  1. Closed captioning of: Rebels gain ground in Libya

    >>> after five months of intense fighting and nato air strikes , opposition forces appear to be tightening the noose around the capital. richard engel is in the rebel controlled town of zintan tonight. good evening.

    >> reporter: we have now pulled back to a safer distance away from the front line , but we did spend the day with rebels and they tell us they're now building up re-enforcements for a major push on tripoli . the terrain in western libya has given the rebels a huge advantage. they live on the high ground , and control the mountains and deep canyons that look almost like the american southwest . but the rebels here are moving down from the mountain and into the city of zawiyah, just 30 miles from tripoli . holding down gadhafi 's all green flags. they control most of this city of 200,000. and are fighting to take it all. we followed a rebel unit to the front line . among the fighters, this man, he used to be a geologist.

    >> are you close to taking the rest of zayiyah?

    >> yes.

    >> is this the rest of the war, do you think?

    >> there are reports that zbad d gadhafi wants to leave the country, do you believe that?

    >> he cannot leave libya , we will get him.

    >> reporter: but the willingness of gadhafi 's troops to fight is all too clear.

    >> about 100.

    >> with that incoming? was that -- that was a rocket that exploded here.

    >> it was coming from --

    >> and i can still see the smoke.

    >> you can see the smoke.

    >> that was maybe --

    >> the rebels are now on tripoli 's doorstep and closing in. but it seems they're going to have to fight for every mile until they reach the surrounded capital. zawiya.

    >> richard engel in libya tonight, thank you.

NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 8/20/2011 12:32:15 AM ET 2011-08-20T04:32:15

Libyan rebels battling Moammar Gadhafi's troops along the country's Mediterranean coast said Saturday they have captured all of the strategic eastern port city of Brega, which has repeatedly changed hands in the 6-month-old civil war.

Rebel military spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani said fighters gained control of the industrial section of Brega, after having captured its residential areas last week.

Brega's capture is an important boost for the rebels. It contains Libya's second-largest hydrocarbon complex and is where the country's main oil fields feed into for refining.

"We have liberated Brega and all of it is under our control," Bani told The Associated Press on Saturday. "The fighters are in the port and taken the refineries."

The clashes with Gadhafi forces killed two rebels and left fifteen injured, according to rebel spokesman Mohammed Idris.

His claim could not be immediately verified and officials in the Libyan capital Tripoli made no comment on it.

Brega is a wide strip of desert made up of two residential sections about 6 miles (10 kilometers) apart, followed by the oil refineries near the port on the Mediterranean Sea.

Brega, about 125 miles (200 kilometers) southwest of the de-facto rebel capital of Benghazi, fell under rebel control briefly in March, but was recaptured by Gadhafi's forces shortly afterward. The fighting around the city has gone back and forth since then, with the rebels struggling to keep their ground.

Rebels closed in on Moammar Gadhafi, pushing back his fighters in a fierce battle in one key coastal city and seizing another town as they advanced toward his remaining bastion, the capital of Tripoli.

The territory remaining under Gadhafi's control has been shrinking dramatically in the past three weeks, with opposition fighters moving closer to Tripoli, a metropolis of 2 million people, from the west, south and east.

At the nearest point, rebel fighters are just 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli, in the coastal city of Zawiya, where battles raged Friday over control of the city center. Gadhafi's forces pounded rebel-held areas of the city with rockets, mortars and anti-aircraft fire, but by nightfall were pushed out of a multistory hotel on the square.

NATO's bombing campaign has made it difficult for the regime to send massive reinforcements to Zawiya, enabling the rebels to maintain a hold over much of the city, their biggest prize in months.

Interactive: Libya uprising: The latest (on this page)

But Friday's onslaught by regime forces also signaled that an opposition push toward Tripoli could be arduous and bloody. The massive fire at one point pinned down some two dozen rebel fighters behind a building about 200 yards (meters) from Zawiya's central square, a symbolic prize in the battle for control of the city of some 200,000 people.

The area was deserted, with building facades blackened and scarred by bullet holes.

The men took a break for Muslim noon prayers, washing their hands and feet with water from plastic bottles, then kneeling on carpets under an olive tree.

The group was commanded by Rida Shaeb, a 47-year-old electrician who wore his workman's blue coveralls to the front line. "We are here to fight," said Shaeb. "We are not going back, even if we die."

Video: Rebels gain ground in Libya (on this page)

East of the capital, rebels seized the city of Zlitan after clashes with regime forces that left 31 rebels dead and 120 injured, a spokesman said. Zlitan had been a major obstacle in the rebels' push toward Tripoli from the east.

"The fighters have liberated Zlitan and they are fighting west of the city," said Munir Ramzi of the opposition Misrata Military Council. He said Gadhafi's forces were fleeing after Friday's victory and the rebels are in control of the city.

With the recent advances, the rebels cut off the coastal road to Tripoli from the east and the west, and also control a city along a major supply road to the capital from the south.

Dealing another blow to the increasingly isolated leader, Libyan rebels said Friday that Abdel-Salam Jalloud, a close Gadhafi associate who was once the No. 2 top regime official, has defected.

Jalloud helped Gadhafi stage the 1969 coup that propelled him to power and transformed Libya from a monarchy to a republic. He was Gadhafi's most trusted deputy for two decades but began to clash with the leader starting in the 1990s.

Rebel spokesman Mahmoud Shammam said that Jalloud had fled to a rebel-held area in the western mountains and was on his way to Europe. Pictures showing Jalloud in the western town of Zintan appeared on rebel Facebook pages. Jalloud did not issue any statements, but Shammam said he had confirmed the defection on the telephone.

Jalloud's defection, if confirmed, would be the latest crack in what remains of Gadhafi's regime, although the two men had fallen out. Rebels also said Jalloud could provide valuable information about Gadhafi's inner circle.

Rebel official Abdel-Hafiz Ghoga said the defection "gives us assurance that Gadhafi is weakening" while stressing that Jalloud would face justice for any crimes committed when he was part of the regime.

As fighting intensified, the International Organization for Migration announced plans to start evacuating "large numbers" of Egyptians and other foreigners, including some journalists, from Tripoli in coming days.

IOM spokeswoman Jemini Pandya said the organization has appealed to donors for emergency funding for the rescue effort, which was needed because the road between Tunisia and Tripoli has been closed.

"We have a very limited window of opportunity to carry out this operation because of the fighting, so it is essential that we are not constrained by a lack of funds from the outset," she told reporters in Geneva.

In recent weeks, the rebels gained momentum, following long stretches of deadlock in the 6-month-old civil war. Fighting had erupted after anti-regime protests swept the country in February. In the early stages, the rebels seized much of the east and two pockets in the west, including the Nafusa mountain range and the port city of Misrata.

For the past week, rebel fighters have been bogged down in the center of Zawiya, after claiming victory over a sprawling oil refinery complex on the western outskirts following days of fighting.

Rebel forces have frequently found themselves outgunned by Gadhafi's forces despite stepped up airstrikes by NATO in Zawiya, Tripoli and surrounding areas.

Fisal Ben Issa, a 30-year-old lawyer-turned-fighter on Zawiya's front line, said he shares his Belgian-made assault rifle with a neighbor, each doing 12-hour shifts at the front line to get maximum use out of the weapon. Ben Issa was listing the weapons at Gadhafi's disposal when he was cut off by a particularly deafening round of mortar fire.

Shortly afterward, the group of two dozen fighters decided to disband, leaving the area in pickup trucks and on foot. Moments later, a tank captured by the rebels later started rumbling toward the center of the city, firing several shells to the shouts of "God is great."

Just before nightfall, more than two dozen pickup trucks filled with rebel fighters and mounted with anti-aircraft guns charged forward into Zawiya. Witnesses and a rebel returning from the front line said the fighters had taken control of the central square and a hotel that had been a key regime sniper position, although government troops still held the main hospital.

The relentless shelling of Zawiya has sent many civilians fleeing. Others hunkered down in their homes, despite the risks. Muftah Mohammed, a civilian, said he was outside his house when he was struck by shrapnel from a mortar shell. A cousin was also hurt. Both were being treated at a clinic on the outskirts of Zawiya.

The brother of Gadhafi's spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, was killed in an airstrike in Zawiya, a government official in Tripoli said. Hasan Ibrahim, 25, and others were struck by bullets fired from an Apache helicopter while on foot in Zawiya's central square, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.

Meanwhile, explosions shook Tripoli early Friday as NATO jets circled overhead. Flames lit up the Tripoli skies near Gadhafi's Bab al-Aziziya headquarters and army barracks.

Gadhafi preparing to flee?
Meanwhile, U.S. officials have told NBC News that Gadhafi is making preparations for a departure from Libya with his family for possible exile in Tunisia.

One official suggested it was possible that Gadhafi would leave within days, NBC News reported Thursday.

Story: NBC: Gadhafi making plans for leaving Libya

The information obtained by NBC News follows a series of optimistic statements this week from U.S. officials that Gadhafi would soon give up the five-month-old fight and and leave Libya.

In an on-camera forum at the National Defense University this week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, "I think the sense is that Gadhafi's days are numbered."

Video: Rebels feel they have the momentum (on this page)

The officials could provide no further details as to conditions or precise timing for Gadhafi's departure, NBC said, and the news report emphasized that there was no guarantee that Gadhafi would follow through on any plans to flee.

NBC News correspondents Jim Miklaszewski and Richard Engel, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Photos: Libya's uprising against Gadhafi

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  1. People gathering in Benghazi, Libya in mid-February of 2011 as protest against the rule of Moammar Gadhafi grew, in part triggered by the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel. EDITOR'S NOTE: The content, date and location of this image could not be independently verified. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Buildings at the entrance to a security forces compound burn in Benghazi, Feb. 21, 2011. Libyan protesters celebrated in the streets of Benghazi, claiming control of the country's second largest city after bloody fighting, and anti-government unrest spread to the capital with clashes in Tripoli's main square for the first time. (Alaguri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi speaks on state television. Feb. 22, and signalled his defiance over a mounting revolt against his 41-year rule. (Libya TV via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Libyan U.N. ambassador Shalgham is embraced by Dabbashi, Libya's deputy U.N. Ambassador after denouncing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for the first time during a Security Council meeting at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York on Feb. 25. Shalgam, a longtime friend and member of Gadhafi's inner circle, had previously refused to denounce Gadhafi. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Thousands of Libyans gather for the Muslim Friday prayers outside the courthouse in the eastern city of Benghazi on Feb. 25, 2011. Perhaps 8,000 people gathered for the midday prayers with a local imam, who delivered his sermon alongside the coffins of three men killed in the violent uprising that routed Gadhafi loyalists from Benghazi. (Gianluigi Guercia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rebels hold a young man at gunpoint, who they accuse of being a loyalist to Gadhafi, between the towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf, March 3, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Pro-Gadhafi soldiers and supporters gather in Green Square in Tripoli, March 6, 2011. Thousands of Moammar Gadhafi's supporters poured into the streets of Tripoli, waving flags and firing their guns in the air in the Libyan leader's main stronghold, claiming overnight military successes. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rebel fighters jump away from shrapnel during heavy shelling by forces loyal to Gadhafi near Bin Jawad, March 6. Rebels in east Libya regrouped and advanced on Bin Jawad after Gadhafi forces ambushed rebel fighters and ejected them from the town earlier in the day. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Libyan rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an airforce fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf on March 7, 2011. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Libyan rebels fire rockets at government troops on the frontline. March 9, 2011 near Ras Lanuf. The rebels pushed back government troops westward towards Ben Jawat. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Libyan government soldiers aboard tanks at the west gate of the town Ajdabiyah March 16, 2011. Libya's army pounded an opposition-held city in the country's west and battled fighters trying to block its advance on a rebel bastion in the east amid flagging diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed. EDITOR'S NOTE: Picture taken on a government guided tour. (Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Libyan people in Benghazi celebrate after the United Nations Security Council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya, March 18. Thousands of Libyans erupted in cheers as the news flashed on a giant screen in besieged Benghazi late March 17. After weeks of discussion, the UN Security Council banned flights in Libya's airspace and authorized "all necessary means" to implement the ban, triggering intervention by individual countries and organizations like NATO. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A picture combo shows a Libyan jet bomber crashing after being apparently shot down in Benghazi on March 19, 2011 as the Libyan rebel stronghold came under attack. Air strikes and sustained shelling of the city's south sent thick smoke into the sky. (Patrick Baz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Residents of Benghazi flee the city along the road toward Tobruk, in an attempt to escape fighting in their city, March 19, 2011. Gaddafi's troops pushed into the outskirts of Benghazi, a city of 670,000 people, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt Western military intervention expected after a meeting of Western and Arab leaders in Paris. (Reuters TV) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Vehicles belonging to forces loyal to Gadhafi explode after an air strike by coalition forces, along a road between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah March 20, 2011. (Goran Tomasevic / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A rebel fighter carries his weapon outside the northeastern Libyan town of Ajdabiyah, March 21, 2011. A wave of air strikes hit Gaddafi's troops around Ajdabiyah, a strategic town in the barren, scrub of eastern Libya that rebels aim to retake and where their fighters said they need more help. (Finbarr O'reilly / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A Libyan rebel prays next to his gun on the frontline of the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, south of Benghazi, March 21, 2011. The international military intervention in Libya is likely to last "a while," a top French official said, echoing Moammar Gadhafi's warning of a long war ahead as rebels, energized by the strikes on their opponents. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Libyan rebels retreat as mortars from Gadhafi's forces are fired on them near the outskirts of the city of Ajdabiya, March 22, 2011. Coalition forces bombarded Libya for a third straight night, targeting the air defenses and forces of Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, stopping his advances and handing some momentum back to the rebels, who were on the verge of defeat. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A Libyan man is comforted by hospital staff as he reacts after identifying his killed brother in the morgue of the Jalaa hospital in Benghazi, March 22, 2011. His brother was killed earlier in fighting around the city of Ajdabiya. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Volunteer fighters training at a rebel army training camp in Benghazi, March 29, 2011. Pro-government forces intensified their attacks on Libyan rebels, driving them back over ground they had taken in recent days. The rebels had reached Nawfaliya, but pulled back to Bin Jawad. (Manu Brabo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Smoke billows as seven explosions were reported in the tightly-guarded residence of leader Moammar Gadhafi and military targets in the suburb of Tajura. Two explosions also rocked the Libyan capital Tripoli on March 29, 2011, as NATO-led coalition aircraft had been seen in the skies over the capital. (Mahmud Turkia / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A Libyan rebel urges people to leave, as shelling from Gadhafi's forces started landing on the frontline outside of Bin Jawaad, 93 miles east of Sirte, March 29, 2011. (Anja Niedringhaus / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. General Abdel-Fattah Younis, former interior minister in the Gadhafi regime who defected in the early days of the uprising, is greeted by Libyan rebels at the front line near Brega, April 1, 2011. (Altaf Qadri / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Libyan men show the V-sign for victory as they stand on the deck of a Turkish ship arriving from Misrata to the port of Benghazi who were evacuated along with others the injured in the fighting between rebel and Gadhafi forces, April 03, 2011. The Turkish vessel took hundreds of people wounded in the Libyan uprising for treatment in Turkey from the two cities of Misrata and Benghazi. (Mahmud Hams / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A wounded prisoner from Gadhafi's forces is transported in the back of a pickup truck by rebels, on the way to a hospital for treatment, half way between Brega and Ajdabiya, April 9, 2011. Rebels say they took two prisoners after a clash with soldiers near Brega's university outside the government-controlled oil facilities, marking a noticeable advance by rebels. (Ben Curtis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. In this image taken from TV, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi makes a pubic appearance in Tripoli, April 14 2011. Gadhafi defiantly waved at his supporters while being driven around Tripoli while standing up through the sunroof of a car. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A rebel fighter celebrates as his comrades fire a rocket barrage toward the positions of government troops April 14, 2011, west of Ajdabiyah. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Gadhafi supporters hold copies of his portrait as they gather at the Bab Al Azizia compound in Tripoli, April 15, 2011. Rebels held much of eastern Libya by mid-April, while Gadhafi controlled the west, with the front line shifting back and forth in the middle. (Pier Paolo Cito / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Doctors work on a baby who suffered cuts from shrapnel that blasted through the window of his home during fighting in the besieged city of Misrata, April 18, 2011. Thousands of civilians are trapped in Misrata as fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels there. The Libyan government has come under international criticism for using heavy weapons and artillery in its assault on Misrata. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. MISRATA, LIBYA - APRIL 20: Libyan rebel fighters discuss how to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from the next room during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011 in Misrata, Libya. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi April 20, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building that fought back instead of surrendering, firing on the rebels in the building and seriously wounding two of them during the standoff. Fighting continues between Libyan government forces that have surrounded the city and anti-government rebels ensconced there. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images) (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Libyan rebel fighters carry out a comrade wounded during an effort to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from a building during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata April 20, 2011. Rebel forces assaulted the downtown positions of troops loyal to Gaddafi, briefly forcing them back over a key bridge and trapping several in a building where they fought back instead of surrendering. Two rebels were seriously wounded during the standoff. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Rebels tread carefully as they prepare to invade a house where soldiers from the pro-government forces had their base in the Zwabi area of Misrata on April 24, 2011. (Andre Liohn / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Libyans inspect damage and an unexploded missile at the Gadhafi family compound in a residential area of Tripoli, May 1, 2011. Gadhafi escaped a NATO missile strike in Tripoli that killed one of his sons and three young grandchildren. EDITOR'S NOTE: Photo taken on a government guided tour. (Darko Bandic / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Moammar Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, center, leaves the funeral of his brother Saif Al-Arab Gadhafi, who was killed during air strikes by coalition forces, at the El Hani cemetery in Tripoli, May 2, 2011. Crowds chanting Gadhafi's name gathered in Tripoli for the funeral of his son and three grandchildren. (Louafi Larbi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Fleeing migrants and Libyans are seen on board an International Organization of Migration ship leaving the port of Misrata on May 4, 2011, as Gadhafi forces continued to pound the city. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Libyan men watch as the main fuel depot in Libya's third largest city, Misrata, burns following a bombing by Gadhafi's forces on May 7, 2011. Libyan regime forces shelled fuel depots in Misrata and dropped mines into its harbor using helicopters bearing the Red Cross emblem, rebels said as they braced for a ground assault. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Libyan rebels celebrate near the airport of Misrata on May 11, 2011 after capturing the city's strategic airport following a fierce battle with Moammar Gadhafi's troops -- their first significant advance in weeks. (Ricardo Garcia Vilanova / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Women react after a protest against Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Benghazi, Libya, on May 16, 2011. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, announced that he would seek arrest warrants against the leader of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi, his son Seif al-Islam and the country's intelligence chief on charges of crimes against humanity. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Tripoli street in Misrata is seen from the terrace of a building used by Gadhafi’s snipers before the rebels took control of the area on May 22, 2011. The weeks-long siege of the city ended in mid-May and Tripoli Street was the site of the fiercest fighting in the battle and a turnin point in the war. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A rebel fighter gives water to a soldier loyal to Gadhafi after he was wounded and then captured near the front line, west of Misrata on May 23, 2011. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. An uncle, left, prays over the body of one and a half year-old Mohsen Ali al-Sheikh during a washing ritual during the funeral at his family's house in Misrata, May 27, 2011. The child was killed by a gunshot during clashes between rebels and pro-Gadhafi forces earlier in the day. (Wissam Saleh / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. The body of a drowned refugee floats near a capsized ship which was transporting an estimated 850 refugees from Libya, approximately 22 miles north of the Tunisian islands of Kerkennah, June 4, 2011. At least 578 survived the sinking. (Lindsay Mackenzie / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. A photograph taken from a video by a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows Mutassem Gadhafi, son of Moammar Gadhafi, drinking water and smoking a cigarette following his capture and shortly before his death, in Sirte, Oct. 20, 2011. (- / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. A photograph taken from mobile phone video of a National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter shows the capture of Moammar Gadhafi in Sirte on Oct. 20, 2011. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. This image provided by the Libyan Youth Group on Nov. 19, 2011, shows Seif al-Islam Gadhafi after he was captured near the Niger border with Libya. Moammar Gadhafi's son, the only wanted member of the ousted ruling family to remain at large, was captured as he traveled with aides in a convoy in Libya's southern desert. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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