ZAWIYA, Libya — Rebels closed in on Moammar Gadhafi on Friday, pushing back his fighters in a fierce battle in one key coastal city and seizing another town as they advanced toward his remaining bastion, the capital of Tripoli.
The territory remaining under Gadhafi's control has been shrinking dramatically in the past three weeks, with opposition fighters moving closer to Tripoli, a metropolis of 2 million people, from the west, south and east.
At the nearest point, rebel fighters are just 30 miles west of Tripoli, in the coastal city of Zawiya, where battles raged Friday over control of the city center. Gadhafi's forces pounded rebel-held areas of the city with rockets, mortars and anti-aircraft fire, but by nightfall were pushed out of a multistory hotel on the square.
NATO's bombing campaign has made it difficult for the regime to send massive reinforcements to Zawiya, enabling the rebels to maintain a hold over much of the city, their biggest prize in months.
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But Friday's onslaught by regime forces also signaled that an opposition push toward Tripoli could be arduous and bloody. The massive fire at one point pinned down some two dozen rebel fighters behind a building about 200 yards from Zawiya's central square, a symbolic prize in the battle for control of the city of some 200,000 people.
The area was deserted, with building facades blackened and scarred by bullet holes.
The men took a break for Muslim noon prayers, washing their hands and feet with water from plastic bottles, then kneeling on carpets under an olive tree.
The group was commanded by Rida Shaeb, a 47-year-old electrician who wore his workman's blue coveralls to the front line. "We are here to fight," said Shaeb. "We are not going back, even if we die."
East of the capital, rebels seized the city of Zlitan after clashes with regime forces that left 31 rebels dead and 120 injured, a spokesman said. Zlitan had been a major obstacle in the rebels' push toward Tripoli from the east.
"The fighters have liberated Zlitan and they are fighting west of the city," said Munir Ramzi of the opposition Misrata Military Council. He said Gadhafi's forces were fleeing after Friday's victory and the rebels are in control of the city.
With the recent advances, the rebels cut off the coastal road to Tripoli from the east and the west, and also control a city along a major supply road to the capital from the south.
Dealing another blow to the increasingly isolated leader, Libyan rebels said Friday that Abdel-Salam Jalloud, a close Gadhafi associate who was once the No. 2 top regime official, has defected.
Jalloud helped Gadhafi stage the 1969 coup that propelled him to power and transformed Libya from a monarchy to a republic.