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Libya Rebels Say They Control Key Border Crossing

Libya Rebels

PAUL SCHEMM and HADEEL AL-SHALCHI   08/27/11 11:08 PM ET   AP

TRIPOLI, Libya — Rebel fighters pushed increasingly leaderless regime gunmen to the outskirts of Tripoli on Saturday, as severe shortages of fuel, water and electricity paralyzed the battle-scarred capital and the stench of growing piles garbage filled the air.

In a call to The Associated Press, the regime's spokesman said Moammar Gadhafi is still in Libya.

The rebels, who now control most of Libya, said they are preparing for an assault on Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, his last major bastion, if negotiations with tribal leaders there fail. Rebels deployed in Bin Jawad, a town about 100 miles (150 kilometers) east of Sirte, said they are waiting for NATO to bomb Scud missile launchers and possible weapons warehouses there.

Earlier this month, two Scuds were fired from near Sirte, a first in Libya's 6-month-old civil war.

"What we fear most is chemical weapons and the long-range missiles," said Fadl-Allah Haroun, a rebel commander. Once NATO has cleared the path, rebels will advance toward Sirte, he said.

Gadhafi's whereabouts are unknown, but there has been speculation he may have sought refuge in his tribal area.

Moussa Ibrahim, Gadhafi's chief spokesman, called AP headquarters in New York late Saturday and said Gadhafi is offering to negotiate with the rebels to form a transitional government. In the past, Gadhafi referred to the rebels as "thugs" and "rats."

Ibrahim, identified by his voice, said Gadhafi appointed his son al-Saadi to head the negotiations.

Ibrahim said he saw Gadhafi on Friday but would say only that he is in Libya. Ibrahim said he himself was in Tripoli.

The rebels' information minister, Mahmoud Shammam, said the hunt for the defeated dictator won't hold up efforts to build a new administration and try to get the situation in Libya under control. "We are following him. We are going to find him, but we are not going to wait for everything to find Gadhafi and his sons," he said.

Rebel fighters were also trying to open up the coastal road from Tunisia to Tripoli, a major supply route. Rebels have taken control of the Tunisian-Libyan border crossing on the Mediterranean, but have been unable to ferry goods from Tunisia because regime loyalists were shelling the coastal road near the city of Zwara, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) from Tripoli, on Saturday.

A large ferry chartered by the International Organization for Migration docked in Tripoli's harbor on Saturday, unloading food, water and medical supplies. On Sunday, the vessel is to take aboard 1,200 stranded foreigners, an IOM official said.

While fighting has died down in the city, life remains very difficult.

Much of the capital is without electricity and water. Streets are strewn with torched cars and stinking garbage, because trash hasn't been collected in many neighborhoods for months. Corpses crowd abandoned hospitals. Stores are closed. Bombed planes sit on the Tripoli's airport's tarmac.

Fuel prices have skyrocketed. In Tripoli, the cost of 20 liters (about 5 gallons) has jumped to about 120 dinars ($100) – 28 times the price before fighting broke.

Shammam, the information minister, said 30,000 metric tons of fuel were being distributed Saturday, and that shipments of diesel fuel, for running power stations and water pumps, are on the way.

He said he hoped the area's largest refinery, near the city of Zawiya, some 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli, could be restarted soon. Mohammed Aziz, an operations manager there, said the refinery would start operating Monday.

In Tripoli's Abu Salim neighborhood, residents said gas is increasingly scarce. "We buy it mainly on the black market, mainly from Tunisians," said Osama Shallouf, a resident. "When you hear that somebody in the neighborhood is selling it, you go to his house and buy it."

The shortages come as Muslims around the world, including in Libya, prepared for a three-day holiday, Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan early next week. Traditionally, children get new clothes, shoes, haircuts and toys for the holiday. In a string of towns stretching to the west of Tripoli, clothing stores were bustling with mothers, children in tow, shopping for Eid clothing. In Zawiya, Sabratha and Surman, the main highway was partially blocked by masses of cars parked in front of the roadside shops.

Rebel fighters rode into Tripoli nearly a week ago, capping a blitz offensive following months of battlefield deadlock. After days of fierce fighting that left at least 230 dead, according to hospital doctors, rebels seemed to be in control of nearly the entire capital.

On Saturday, they claimed victory over the suburb of Qasr bin Ghashir, near Tripoli's airport, following an overnight battle. Residents celebrated by firing guns and anti-aircraft weapons into the air and beating portraits of the toppled leader with their shoes. Regime troops had been shelling the airport from the area.

"You can say that bin Ghashir has been liberated from Gadhafi soldiers," said Omar al-Ghuzayl, a 45-year-old field commander in charge of rebel forces at Tripoli's airport. "We've been able to push them completely outside Tripoli."

The London-based Sky News, meanwhile, reported finding as many as 53 bodies in a burned-out warehouse close to a military base. Locals said they believe the men were executed by pro-Gadhafi forces.

There were also two bodies of regime soldiers with their hands tied behind their backs among the dead, the report added.

Earlier this week, at least 60 bodies, mostly of dark-skinned men, were found in the parking lot, a ward and in the basement of the main hospital in Abu Salim. It remains unclear how the men died. With report for his regime waning, rebels allege Gadhafi hired many foreign fighters, including from sub-Saharan Africa.

In a diplomatic boost for the rebels, the Arab League restored Libya's membership in the bloc on Friday and turned over its seat to the rebels' political leadership in the National Transitional Council. The 22-member League had suspended Libya's membership in February in response to Gadhafi's crackdown on protesters.

Regime loyalists, meanwhile, appeared increasingly leaderless.

In Tripoli, the son of Libya's once-powerful intelligence chief came into the city's Al-Afia hospital to ask for treatment for 20 of his loyalist fighters, said a physician there, Fawzi Addala.

Addala said he vaguely recognized the commander, but had to ask why he looked so familiar.

"He told me: 'I am a dead man – I'm Abdullah Senoussi's son,'" Addala told the Associated Press.

Mohammed Senoussi's brigade had been shelling Tripoli's airport earlier this week, but had to flee the rebel advance. The doctor said the younger Senoussi and his fighters were clearly exhausted, and some asked for medication to keep them awake.

"He told me: 'I am defending my father, not the regime, because I know what the regime is all about'," the doctor said.

"Mohammed was very polite, asked for a cigarette and water and looked defeated," said Addala.

Senoussi's father is Abdullah al-Senoussi, a top aide to Gadhafi and intelligence chief.

Also Saturday, an American writer and filmmaker who ended up in Libya's most notorious prison during the civil war said he feared he would die one of the dictator's forgotten victims. Matthew VanDyke said that when crowd wrestled open his Libyan jail cell, he feared it was an angry mob suspecting he was a CIA spy.

Instead, fellow prisoners and rebels freed him from Abu Salim prison. VanDyke was captured by government soldiers in the eastern oil town of Brega and then held incommunicado for six months in Tripoli – a third of it in a small cell.

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Associated Press writer Ted Anthony in New York contributed to this report.

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Filed by Chris Gentilviso  |