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Strategic Libya city may fall to rebels

ZAWIYA, Libya — Dozens of opposition fighters surrounded Libya's last functioning oil refinery Wednesday and laid siege to about 100 government troops, part of a push which brought them closer to seizing this strategic western city.

A rebel victory in Zawiya could be a turning point in the six-month-old war and leave Moammar Gadhafi nearly cornered in his increasingly isolated stronghold of Tripoli, the capital, just 30 miles to the east along the Mediterranean coast.

Rebel fighters are closing in on the capital from the west and the south, while NATO controls the seas to the north. The opposition is in control of most of the eastern half of the country and has declared Benghazi, 620 miles east of Tripoli, as its de facto capital.

Wednesday's fighting focused around the sprawling refinery complex on the western outskirts of Zawiya, a city of 200,000. The rebels, who began their assault on the refinery a day earlier, took control of the facility's three-story administration building, tearing down the Gadhafi regime's green flag that flew over the grounds.

Desperate Gadhafi troops cut off from the main government forces took cover in a residential compound and closed the gates to prevent workers from fleeing, rebels said. The troops barricaded themselves in and positioned snipers on rooftops. An Associated Press photographer inside the refinery with rebel troops heard occasional bursts of gunfire.

An oil engineer in the compound told the AP that about 100 Gadhafi soldiers remained inside late Wednesday afternoon. At least several dozen rebel fighters were also in the area. A rebel field commander in Zawiya, Osama Arusi, said his forces controlled parts of the complex.

The Libyan rebels made a dramatic advance on Saturday out of their bases in the western mountains near Tunisia into Zawiya on the Mediterranean coast. Since then, they have taken control of 70 percent of the city, rebel commanders say, and have been slowly gaining ground in fierce battles with Gadhafi's forces.

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