ZAWIYAH, Libya (Reuters) - For 12 hours, Libyan rebel Ahmed Oraybee had been moving from one building to the next in the town of Zawiyah, trying to hunt down the pro-government snipers stalking its neighbourhoods.
Suddenly he became a victim himself when a bullet struck him in the leg.
“These snipers are really good. The sniper shot me in the leg as I was climbing a staircase so that a comrade or two would come and help me, and then he would try to kill all of us,” he told Reuters, speaking from a bed at Bir Muammar Hospital.
“They have a well thought-out plan.”
Rebels attacked Zawiyah on Saturday and say they now control about 80 percent of the strategic town which lies 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli.
The fighters are focussed on capturing or killing the snipers and clearing out any other pro-government forces so they can then set up barricades, secure Zawiyah and move on to the capital Tripoli, Muammar Gaddafi’s stronghold.
Gaddafi’s men have recaptured Zawiyah twice before so the rebels say they are being extra cautious and thorough.
“The snipers are in many tall buildings in Zawiyah. It will take time to hunt them down,” said Oraybee, 26, who was an accountant before he took up arms.
In central Zawiyah, a few families drove cars past a group of about 40 rebels and beeped to celebrate the rebel advance. A man and his sons grinned as fighters sped by in pick-up trucks mounted with machineguns.
But Grad missiles, mortars and bullets sporadically fired by Gaddafi’s men kept the town on edge. Almost all shops remained shuttered.
A man named Waleed, his shirt drenched in his sister’s blood, held her hand, hoping doctors would keep her alive after shrapnel from a mortar bomb hit her in the neck and hips.
He said he was also praying government forces never return to Zawiyah. “Gaddafi terrified us for months. His men randomly raided homes and beat people and took their valuables,” said Waleed, with tears in his eyes.
As wounded rebels were brought to the hospital, others tried to gather information on the movements of Gaddafi forces in Zawiyah.
One medic said government forces had stored large amounts of weapons in the Zawiyah Teaching Hospital. Rumours spread that large numbers of government forces were killed in the facility.
Control of the Zawiyah oil refinery, one of the country’s biggest, remained in the hands of government forces but rebels said they were closing in on them.
Rebel Omar al Magherby set up his automatic rifle with a long cartridge belt dangling from it outside the hospital “in case of any attacks.”
He spoke of Gaddafi - who has ruled Libya for over four decades — as if he had special powers.
The news that he and his fellow rebels had captured most of Zawiyah and cut off Tripoli from a vital supply route from Tunisia seemed almost too good to be true.
Suspicions run deep in Zawiyah. Rebels arrested 15 men they said were African mercenaries and Libyan soldiers fighting for Gaddafi and locked them inside a building beside the hospital.
One of them, a Nigerian, pleaded, saying he was working in Zawiyah at a car wash. “I am innocent,” he said, as a rebel just shook his head, pointed his weapon and told him to produce work papers.
Inside the hospital, medics wheeled in a man they said was a Gaddafi militiaman who was suffering from a gunshot wound. His jaw was hanging by the flesh.
Until they capture or expel the remaining government forces, Zawiyah will remain unstable.
“I was just sitting at home and they got me,” said an Egyptian man who was shot by a sniper, as a doctor put the patient’s cellphone in a plastic bag and took his pulse.
Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Rosalind Russell