* Rebels clear western refinery of Gaddafi loyalists
* Rebels take Garyan, cut highway north to Tripoli
* Former French premier de Villepin held talks
(Adds de Villepin in talks with two sides, paragraphs
By Ulf Laessing and Yvonne Bell
ZAWIYAH, Libya, Aug 18 Libyan rebels took
control of an oil refinery in the western town of Zawiyah and
blocked the main highway south of the capital on Thursday,
further isolating Muammar Gaddafi's Tripoli stronghold.
Rebel advances in recent days have cut Gaddafi's forces off
from their main international resupply routes following a
months-long stalemate, putting the Libyan leader's 41-year rule
under unprecedented pressure.
Confirming reports that, despite their denials, the rebels
and Gaddafi loyalists are in negotiations, former French prime
minister Dominique de Villepin told a French newspaper he was in
the Tunisian town of Djerba on Monday to meet both sides.
"I was indeed there, but I cannot make any further comment
because it would compromise the chances of success and the
efficacy of these talks," he told Le Parisien. The talks had
been "extremely difficult", he added.
The French government declined comment.
Rebel fighters occupied Zawiyah refinery, 50 km (30 miles)
west of Tripoli on the highway linking the capital to Tunisia. A
Reuters reporter at the plant saw no sign of Gaddafi's troops.
"The battle lasted for two days but the main battle was last
night. We took control last night," said Saleh Omran, 31, a
rebel fighter from Zawiyah. He said rebel forces fought about
150 Gaddafi troops, who finally fled by sea in inflatable boats.
Doctors at a hospital near Zawiyah said nine people were
killed and at least 45 injured in fighting around the town and
at the refinery on Wednesday, most of them rebels. A Grad rocket
fired by Gaddafi forces had hit a house near the hospital.
ROAD SOUTH BLOCKED
Rebels also held the town of Garyan, about 80 km (50 miles)
from Tripoli on the main highway south, a Reuters reporter said.
"We took one tank and an anti-aircraft gun from Gaddafi's
forces. Next, we'll go to Tripoli," said a fighter called
himself Mohammed. The captured weapons were in the town square.
Rebel forces advanced several kilometres north of Garyan
later in the day, clashing with pro-Gaddafi fighters. Black
smoke billowed from the direction of the fighting and gunfire
and the explosions of rockets could be heard.
A spokesman for Gaddafi played down recent rebel gains and
said the government remained in control of the country.
"This is a crisis that will last a few days and then it will
be -- God willing -- overcome," said Moussa Ibrahim in remarks
carried by JANA news agency on Thursday. "We will push ahead
until we liberate the whole country."
Gaddafi's whereabouts are unknown.
Aided by NATO bombers, assault helicopters and a naval
blockade, the rebels have transformed the battle in the last few
days after many weeks of stalemate.
The United States deployed two more Predator surveillance
drones, a U.S. official said on Wednesday.
On the eastern front, rebel forces said they had tightened
their grip around the oil town of Brega, but had suffered high
casualties in fighting over the past several days.
"All of Alargop is now free, liberated," spokesman Musa
Mahmoud al-Mugrabi said of the area 6 km (4 miles) south of
Brega, on a supply route for Gaddafi's forces running south.
"Casualties have been very high because it's urban clashes,"
he said. About 40 rebels have been killed and nearly 100 wounded
in and around Brega over the past 10 days, according to a tally
of reports from the rebels and hospital workers.
The 69-year-old Gaddafi seems isolated, with rebel forces
closing in and vowing to enter Tripoli by the end of the month.
A Reuters reporter in Tripoli, where military targets have been
pounded by NATO warplanes for five months, said a few explosions
were heard from the center of the city around midday.
Rebel forces said they were about 100 km (60 miles) west of
the rebel-held port of Misrata on the road to Tripoli.
Zawiyah's refinery was one of the few sources of fuel for
Gaddafi's troops and the people of Tripoli. Rebels said the
plant was shut but showed no signs of serious damage as much of
the fighting was with light weapons. A pipeline linking it to
Tripoli was shut down on Tuesday, a rebel commander said.
Rebel fighters stripped posters of Gaddafi from a
building inside the refinery complex and threw them to the
Libyan Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Ali Al-Mahmoudi
denied the refinery was in rebel hands and called for a
"In terms of the military, we are indeed powerful
enough to finish this battle to our advantage, but the cost
would be too high," he told reporters in Tripoli. The Libyan
government has said repeatedly it would welcome a ceasefire, on
the condition it is preceded by a halt to NATO bombing.
(Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva, Robert Birsel
in Benghazi, Missy Ryan in Tripoli, Michael Georgy in the
western Mountains, Hamid Ould Ahmed in Algiers, Souhail Karam in
Rabat; Joseph Nasr in Berlin, Alexandra Sage in Paris; Ulf
Laessing in Garyan; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by
Douglas Hamilton and Alastair Macdonald)