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Libyan rebels fight Gadhafi forces to capture key western city near capital Tripoli
ZAWIYA, Libya (AP) ' Libyan rebels and government troops loyal to Moammar Gadhafi fought for control of Zawiya on Sunday, a day after opposition forces pushed from the western mountains into the strategic city in their most dramatic advance in months.
The city of 200,000 just 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli attempted to rise against Gadhafi months ago, near the start of Libya's civil war, but was crushed. Zawiya has been a key target for rebels waging a new offensive launched from the mountains in the far west of Libya, near Tunisia's border.
An Associated Press reporter in Zawiya said pro-Gadhafi snipers were shooting at rebels from an overpass deep in the city. Sporadic loud booms could be heard echoing across Zawiya, and a column of heavy black smoke could be seen rising over the city's outskirts.
"Freedom, freedom," chanted a group of men greeting rebels inside Zawiya. One of those in the crowd rolled up his pants to show black-and-blue bruises he said were caused by a beating he received from pro-Gadhafi forces who have been in control of the city for months.
Zawiya's residents rose up against the regime shortly after the revolt against Gadhafi began in February. But Gadhafi's forces retaliated and crushed opposition in the city in a long and bloody siege in March. Many of Zawiya's rebels fled into the western mountains ' and were among the lead forces advancing on the city Saturday.
If they can hold it, the rebels' capture of Zawiya would strain Gadhafi's troops, which have been hammered for months by NATO airstrikes. Defending Zawiya is key for the regime but could require bringing in better trained forces who are currently ensuring its hold over Tripoli or fighting rebels on fronts further east.
A group of about 200 exuberant rebel fighters, advancing from the south, reached a bridge on Zawiya's southwestern outskirts on Saturday, and some rebels pushed farther into the city's central main square. They tore down the green flag of Gadhafi's regime from a mosque minaret and put up two rebel flags. The AP reporter traveling with the rebels saw hundreds of residents rush into the streets, greeting the fighters piled into the backs of pickup trucks with chants of "God is great."
The city was tense on Sunday, with the rebels erecting numerous checkpoints inside and on the road leading to it from the west. At one checkpoint, rebels fired in the air to restore order when a crowd gathered around a man who refused to open his car's trunk for inspection.
"Fifth column, fifth column," shouted the crowd, suggesting that the motorist may be a spy for Gadhafi forces. He eventually opened the trunk to show there was nothing suspicious.
Elsewhere in the city, eight African men were rounded up by the rebels and taken to the local intelligence building. Residents shouted "mercenaries" at them as they were driven across the city to the building, torched during fighting back in February.
The eight men were handcuffed and looked frightened as they sat inside the building. One of the eight, Nigerian Paul Joseph, said he was a worker in Zawiya and that he was arrested by rebels at his apartment.
"I left my seven-months pregnant wife behind in the flat," said Joseph. "We have been trying to get out of Zawiya, but could not."