Zawiyah, Libya — Rebel fighters claimed complete control of a sprawling oil refinery in this coastal town on Thursday, seizing one of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s most important assets after just three days of fighting and delivering the latest in a string of small victories that have suddenly put the rebels at Tripoli’s door.
Despite what rebel leaders described as fierce fighting, many of them expressed surprise that the Qaddafi loyalists were routed with relative ease. Some people even wondered whether the chaotic exit by around 50 of the Qaddafi fighters — who fled by boat before they were bombed by NATO warplanes, according to several fighters — was some sort of a ruse.
“We hope this is it,” said Ajali Deeb, a petrochemical engineer at the seized refinery. “I think he is weak. These are indications that the system has started to collapse.”
The six-month history of the Libyan conflict is filled with similar predictions made by one side or the other, usually in the face of nettlesome facts. Even so, the rebels have taken substantial territory in western Libya over the past few weeks, and Colonel Qaddafi’s forces have not mounted a forceful counterattack.
There were other signs of a conflict that had reached a critical moment, if not its final stage. For days, the vital highway from Tunisia to Tripoli has remained closed, controlled by the rebels in a harsh blow to the Qaddafi government, which relies on the road for supplies of food and fuel.
Thousands of refugees are also fleeing daily from Tripoli, some to escape the city’s mounting hardships but others expecting that they will be safer in rebel-held areas. On the road, they pass through checkpoints staffed by increasingly confident rebel fighters, many of them toting brand-new machine guns supplied by one of several foreign allies now providing weapons to the rebel forces.
Perhaps the clearest sign of collapsing morale among Qaddafi forces was found in dozens of miles of untouched farmland, between the town of Bir Ghanem, which was heavily contested for weeks, and Zawiyah. Qaddafi forces retreated along the road between the towns last week, ceding 55 miles, and hardly putting up a fight, rebel fighters said.
“It took one day. They were running,” said Mustafa Traiki, 30, who fought in Zawiyah on Thursday. “I think they are getting weaker. Every day, we hear about someone coming from the Qaddafi side to our side,” he said.
Colonel Qaddafi has rejected calls to leave power, defying defections by subordinates, increased economic and political isolation and NATO air assaults. Nevertheless, his government was said to be involved in French-brokered negotiations with the rebels in the Tunisian city of Djerba this week, Reuters said, citing a report in the newspaper Le Parisien. The former French prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, who said he was present at the meetings, called the talks “extremely difficult.”
As their foreign allies searched for a way to end the fighting, the Libyan rebels tried to seize more territory and perhaps gain leverage in their negotiations. Their successes have at least temporarily shifted attention away from the rebel’s internal divisions, laid bare by the assassination of their top military commander on July 28. There also remained the possibility that the rebels, as they have in the past, would advance beyond their ability to hold their ground.
And the Qaddafi forces, despite signs of weakness, have not stopped resisting. Even as the rebels have extended partial or total control over key coastal towns, including Sabratha and Surman, west of Zawiyah, there have been reports of Qaddafi loyalists’ shedding their uniforms and continuing the fight inside those towns. Rebels said they were in control of the city of Gheryan, which straddles another crucial supply line to Tripoli. Clashes were reported Thursday within a few miles of the city, Reuters reported.
A few miles from the port at the oil refinery, where fleeing Qaddafi soldiers left their green fatigues on a dock, snipers shot at rebel fighters in the center of Zawiyah, which is still held by government loyalists.
The six-day struggle for Zawiyah, the last major city on the western approach to Tripoli that Qaddafi forces had managed to hold, has now settled into fierce fighting on two fronts, rebel fighters said. There have been ongoing clashes around Zawiyah’s eastern entrance, and in the center of town Qaddafi soldiers have take up positions in a traffic circle and in several buildings, including a bank, a hospital and a hotel that was under construction.
On Thursday, the hotel caught fire, sending a column of black smoke above the city.
The Qaddafi soldiers still committed to the fight appeared less capable than the troops that had repeatedly driven back the rebels in the early months of the war. The mortar attacks this week — regular, and still deadly — lacked the precision of the strikes that used to send rebel soldiers fleeing en masse from towns like Brega and Ras Lanuf in the eastern part of the country.
As the smoke from the hotel provided cover for the rebels, they gathered their dead, including two men whose bodies had been sitting in the road for days. Eissa Korghly, an engineer turned fighter, used his pickup truck to take the bloated bodies wrapped in floral blankets to a graveyard, where several men helped bury them.
A few miles away, Qaddafi soldiers still had positions, a gravedigger said. Mr. Korghly picked up his shotgun, and turned his truck around, headed back to Zawiyah.
“We are pushing,” he said. “Maybe it’s hours. Not days.”
Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York.