After reports of heavy clashes erupting in the coastal city of Zawiyah early Saturday, Libyan rebels announced they had claimed the strategic town.
But shortly after, the Qaddafi government released a statement denying the rebel capture of the port town west of Tripoli, in what would have pushed the rebel front line to its closest point to the capital since the uprising against the embattled regime began in mid-February.
“Zawiyah is completely under our control,” government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim told reporters in the capital, AFP reported. “A very small group of rebels tried to enter from the south of Zawiyah but they were stopped easily by our armed forces.”
Zawiyah is a strategic hotspot as it lies along the main supply line for Colonel Qaddafi’s stronghold of Tripoli. It is also the home town of many of the rebels battling against the Qaddafi regime and demanding that the Libyan leader surrender power.
Mr. Ibrahim said fewer than 100 rebels entered the city from the south and they tried to join up with 50 rebels within the city, who had been “dealt with.”
But reports early Saturday claimed that a rebel force of about 200 fighters had reached a bridge on the southwestern outskirts of the city, which is located around 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli.
Reporters traveling with the rebels saw hundreds of resident rush into the streets, greeting rebels with chants of “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great.”
Rebel fighters returning south to Bir Al Ghanam told Reuters the force claimed partial control of only the city center.
“We took over the centre of Zawiyah about an hour ago. There were mercenaries there. The fighting lasted about 30 minutes and then they ran away,” a rebel fighter named Ahmed told Reuters.
He said people had come out in to the streets to celebrate.
A second rebel, Abdelsalam, said: “We’re in control of the center. Some Qaddafi troops have fled to Tripoli, some are left over, and there are also mercenaries in the town. So we don’t have complete control yet.”
Col. Qaddafi forces had responded to the rebel advance with heavy shelling and gunfire could be heard as rebels and government troops battled, the Associated Press reported,
This is not the first time that the Libyan government has denied rebel control in Zawiyah. The strategic city was the scene of heavy fighting at the start of the nationwide rebellion in February against the Libyan leader.
Indeed, they were defeated by government forces in March but when the rebels returned three months later, it was again government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim who said there was “no serious fighting” in Zawiyah.
“They were not able to enter Zawiyah,” he said in June. “Their numbers are very small.”
“They were defeated after a few hours of scattered skirmishes with the army,” he added.
But not long after the reporters left Zawiyah, rebel spokesman Mohamed Ezzawi said by phone there was heavy fighting 400 meters (yards) from the square, according to Reuters.
Meanwhile on Saturday, four rebels were reportedly killed by an accidental NATO airstrike on a rebel tank at Zawiyah, Dr Asim Shaybee, at a field hospital told Reuters.
Elsewhere in other battles on two fronts to the east of Tripoli, at Brega and near Misrata, at least 21 rebels and six soldiers were killed over the past two days, with some 50 rebels wounded. But neither side claimed major advances in these areas in the past 24 hours.