August 12, 2011 / 10:06 AM / 8 years ago

WRAPUP 2-Gaddafi forces still hold Brega oil terminal, refinery

* Gov’t forces holding on to oil terminal at Brega

* Tunisia cracks down on petrol smuggling to Gaddafi

* More countries to unfreeze assets for rebels

By Robert Birsel

BENGHAZI, Libya, Aug 12 (Reuters) - Troops loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi are still in control of the oil terminal and refinery of the strategic eastern port of Brega despite rebel advances, a spokesman for rebel forces said on Friday.

The two sides have been battling for months over Brega, 750 km east of Tripoli. The rebels see securing the oil facilities as a tipping point in the war and hope to resume oil exports from there as quickly as possible.

Rebels said they had captured a residential area of Brega on Thursday. But spokesman Mohammed Zawawi told reporters it was still not safe to go into the city. The oil terminal is about 15 kms (about 10 miles) from the residential district.

“Now we’re trying to clear that area. There are some Gaddafi troops still there,” said Mohammed Zawawi. “Gaddafi troops are shooting rockets into the city.”

Gaddafi is clinging to power despite a near five-month-old NATO air campaign, tightening economic sanctions, and a lengthening war with rebels trying to end his 41-year rule.

The rebels have seized large swathes of the North African state, but are deeply divided and lack experience, and Thursday’s gains in the east broke weeks of stalemate.

In the west, rebel forces driving north towards the town of Zawiyah, within striking distance of Gaddafi’s strongold in the capital, have not moved up from Thursday’s positions.

Rebels said they had reached the village of Bir Shuaib, some 25 km (15 miles) from Zawiyah, which has unsuccessfully risen up against Gaddafi twice this year.

THREE FRONTS

The western battle is one of three widely separated rebel fronts against Gaddafi forces. In the east around the ports of Misrata and Brega, fighting had been bogged down in recent weeks while the western rebels have advanced.

Misrata, a sea port on the Mediterranean under rebel control for months, is about 500 kms (300 miles) east of Brega

Zawiyah lies less than 50 km west of Tripoli, on the main road to Tunisia, which has been a lifeline for Libya but has begun to crack down on rampant smuggling of gasoline.

Rebels in the western mountains do not operate as a single force, as each town has its own command. But when they join forces for major operations they can muster a few thousand men.

In an effort to pile economic and military pressure on Gaddafi, more countries are set to announce next week that they will free frozen assets for the rebels, a British official said.

“While it’s hard to predict when this will end, it’s easy to see the pressure is building on Gaddafi and it is only a matter of time before he’s forced to leave power,” the official said.

Britain is playing a leading role in NATO air strikes against Gaddafi’s forces, which have weakened his armoury but have not enabled the rebels to deliver a knockout blow.

Tightening the economic noose around Gaddafi, Tunisia said on Thursday its troops were patrolling fuel stations to curb the flow of smuggled gasoline into neighbouring Libya.

International sanctions and the effects of Libya’s civil war have disrupted normal supplies of fuel to parts of the country under Gaddafi’s control, but huge volumes of gasoline are instead being smuggled across the Libyan-Tunisian border.

“The armed forces are now conducting checks at fuel stations in the south of Tunisia ... so that neither Tunisians nor Libyans can fill up with large quantities,” Tunisian defence ministry official Mokhtar Ben Nasr told a news conference.

“These checks are aimed at preventing the smuggling of diesel and gasoline to Libya.” (Additional reporting by Michael Georgy with rebel forces in the west, Tarek Amara in Tunisia, Joseph Nast in Berlin and Mariam Karouny in Beirut ; writing by Douglas Hamilton, editing by Gareth Jones)

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