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Moammar Gadhafi's forces launch counterattack against Libyan rebel advance toward Tripoli
ZAWIYA, Libya (AP) ' Moammar Gadhafi's forces launched a fierce counterattack in a strategic western city on Friday, firing rockets, mortar shells and anti-aircraft guns in a bid to keep the rebels from gaining complete control and advancing toward the nearby capital.
NATO's bombing campaign has made it difficult for the regime to send massive reinforcements to Zawiya, enabling the rebels to maintain a foothold in their biggest prize in months. But Friday's fierce onslaught by regime forces signaled an opposition push toward Tripoli, Gadhafi's main stronghold, would be arduous and bloody.
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.
Rebels also seized the western city of Zlitan after clashes with regime forces that left 31 rebels dead and 120 injured, a spokesman said. The claim couldn't be independently verified.
Government troops have been fighting rebels in and around Zlitan for months. The town is a major obstacle in the path from the nearby city of Misrata trying to make their way to Tripoli.
"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.
The clashes came as the momentum in Libya's 6-month-old civil war appeared to shift toward the rebels after months of deadlock, with the opposition holding most of the east and regime troops in the western half of the oil-rich North African country.
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 earlier this week.
Friday's 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 frontline. "We are here to fight," said Shaeb. "We are not going back, even if we die."
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, 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 fighters decided to disband, leaving the area in pickup trucks and on foot, although a tank captured by rebels started rumbling toward the center of the city, firing several shells to the shouts of "God is great."
Hours later, 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, 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli, 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.
Zawiya is seen as a test for the final push to Tripoli, a metropolis of about 2 million people, or a third of the country's population. Rebel forces entered the city last weekend, but have since failed to push Gadhafi's forces out.
A local rebel commander, Mohammed al-Aloush, said the refinery, which was captured Thursday, is still controlled by the opposition but had been shut down completely because it had run out of crude oil.
The flow of crude to the refinery from fields in the southwest of Libya had largely been halted since midsummer and its capture was unlikely to have a major impact on Gadhafi's ability to secure fuel, but it was seen as a significant step in the rebel advance toward the capital.
Explosions also shook the capital early Friday as NATO jets circled overhead. Flames lit up the Tripoli skies near Gadhafi's Bab al-Aziziya headquarters and army barracks.
In Tripoli, a government official said the brother of Gadhafi's spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, had been killed in an airstrike. 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.
Associated Press writer Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.