As Rebels Encircle Tripoli, Qaddafi’s Hold Seems to Slip

Zawiyah, Libya – Rebels encircled the beleaguered Libyan capital on Saturday, claiming to have taken major towns to its east, west and south, leaving only the NATO-patrolled sea to the north.

With residents continuing to stream out of the capital, Tripoli, and reports of the third defection of a major government official in a week, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s grip on the country he has ruled for 42 years appeared increasingly tenuous. Rumors swept Libya that he was preparing to flee, if he had not already.

By Saturday afternoon, the rebels had driven Col. Qaddafi’s forces out of the strategic oil refinery town of Zawiyah, 30 miles west of Tripoli. After a week of heavy fighting there, residents began to celebrate in the main square.

The Arab news network Al Jazeera reported that Zlitan, a crucial Qaddafi barracks town east of Tripoli, also had fallen to the rebels. The opposition captured Gharyan, the gateway to the south, last week.

Farther east, the rebels claimed to have seized the residential areas of the oil port of Brega, a prize that had changed hands many times since the uprising began.

A senior American official said Mr. Qaddafi’s days “are numbered.”

“It is clear that the situation is moving against Qaddafi,” Jeffrey D. Feltman, an assistant secretary of state, said after meeting rebel leaders in Benghazi, the rebel capital, Reuters reported. “The opposition continues to make substantial gains on the ground while his forces grow weaker.”

Rebel leaders were optimistic. “The end is very near” for Colonel Qaddafi, said Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, leader of the rebel’s governing council. “We have contacts with people from the inner circle of Qaddafi,” he said. “All evidence is that the end is very near, with God’s grace.”

But the battle was hardly over. In the past six months, the rebels have frequently proven unable to hold captured territory, sometimes keeping it no longer than a few days. Government forces were still fighting fiercely outside Zawiyah, and in Brega they controlled the oil refinery.

Tripoli, while under pressure, remains a Qaddafi stronghold, as does Surt, a coastal city to the east, and Sabha to the south. Government officials continued to insist that they would fight to the end.

Still, with rebels virtually surrounding the capital and NATO bombing the city from their positions in the Mediterranean, residents were feeling increasingly under siege. With the main supply routes closed, electricity and fuel were scarce, crime was increasing and garbage was piling up in the streets.

The Tunisian state news agency reported Saturday that Libya’s oil chief, Omran Abukraa, had defected to Tunisia. The agency, TAP, said he left Tripoli for business in Italy and decided not to return.

If confirmed, his defection would be the third of a senior government official in the past week.

Abdel Salam Jalloud, a former Qaddafi deputy, was reported to have defected Friday. A senior security official, Nassr al-Mabrouk Abdullah , flew to Cairo with his family on Monday.

Mr. Abdel-Jalil, the chairman of the rebel government, the National Transitional Council, said he hoped Col. Qaddafi and the rest of his inner circle would follow.

“That would be a good thing that will end the bloodshed and help us avoid material costs,” he said. “But I do not expect that he will do that.”

In Zawiyah, even as Qaddafi forces continued to shell the city from about six miles away, residents began to emerge from their homes into an apocalyptic landscape.

The central Martyrs’ Square was marked by heavy damage and signs of a hasty retreat. Three bodies, identified by residents as Qaddafi soldiers, lay in the grass.

The square was littered with cookware, military fatigues and even a flak jacket abandoned by troops on their way out. Around the square, buildings were peppered with holes from bullets and rockets, a hotel was badly damaged by fire and the upper floors of an administrative building had collapsed.

In the late afternoon, young men drove into the square, performing celebratory donuts, spinning their cars in tight circles, their tires screeching loudly and echoing off the shattered buildings. A man watching from the side of the square shook his head in stunned disbelief. “I swear to God,” he said, “freedom is beautiful.”