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Libyan Opposition Forces Gain New Ground, Press Toward Tripoli

August 15, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: The latest developments in the seesaw fight for control of Libya.

We begin with a report narrated by Jonathan Miller of Independent Television News.

JONATHAN MILLER: Don’t jump the gun. It’s not over yet. This is Zawiyah this morning. Tonight, it’s a ghost town again. Moammar Gadhafi’s men are fighting back. But, for nearly 24 hours, Zawiyah was back in rebel hands. It’s only 30 miles west of Tripoli. It’s Gadhafi’s lifeline, supplying food and fuel to a city running on empty. The noose is tightening.

“Victory is coming, and coming soon,” this man says. “We will smoke the rats out of their bunker.”

Colonel Gadhafi urged Libyans to free the country from traitors today over a crackly phone line broadcast on state TV.

MOAMMAR GADHAFI, Libyan leader (through translator): Always forward. Challenge. Pick up your weapons. Go to the fight for liberating Libya inch by inch from the traitors and from NATO. The blood of martyrs is fuel for the battle. The end of the rats is near.

JONATHAN MILLER: But towns are falling like dominoes to those desert rats, battles intense and still raging. It’s exactly six months since the uprising erupted, first in Benghazi, then Zawiyah, but loyalist forces fought back.

By the time the U.N. Security Council authorized the use of all necessary measures to protect civilians, Colonel Gadhafi’s army was at the base of Benghazi. But NATO airstrikes halted his advance and, providing air cover for the rebels, Libyan forces retreated westwards.

Since mid-March, the strategic town of Ajdabiya and the oil ports of Brega and Ras Lanuf have repeatedly changed hands. Further west, Misrata self-liberated after a long, bloody siege, Zlitan still being fought over.

It’s only in recent days that opposition fighters claim to have liberated Tiji, the garrison town of Gharyan and now Zawiyah. Forty minutes down the road, in Tripoli, and it’s another country.

MAN (through translator): Of course we will not let them enter Tripoli. We will stand together.

JONATHAN MILLER: Tonight, the rumor mill is in overdrive, though, strange goings-on at Tripoli Airport, a U.N. envoy joining talks between regime and rebels in next-door Tunisia, where the first buds of this long Arab spring first blossomed nine months ago.

Also reportedly at those talks, representatives from Venezuela, the U.S., NATO, the Arab League, Moammar Gadhafi’s men making demands, seeking safe passage. Despite regime denials, Colonel Gadhafi is, after 42 years, more isolated than ever before, surrounded by enemies, plagued by defections, a revolt reaching critical mass.