Libya unrest: Entering Zawiya

Fighters loyal to Col Gaddafi in Zawiya, Libya
Image caption Col Gaddafi's elite and much-feared fighters - the Khamis Brigade - were out in force in Zawiya

Many intrepid journalists have succeeded in getting in to Zawiya.

Others, including me, have tried and been detained.

Earlier this week, one BBC team was stopped on the road to Zawiya, held for 21 hours, beaten and subjected to mock executions before being released.

Today, finally, the Libyan authorities allowed the foreign press corps to visit the town, which has been the scene of such heavy fighting over the last week.

Zawiya is completely devastated.

Our route into the town was somewhat circuitous, rather than heading in on the main road.

Exactly why was not clear but the regime of Col Muammar Gaddafi has done its best to clean up much of the evidence of conflict - but damaged buildings, destroyed homes and roads ruined by tanks are impossible to hide.


Virtually every building around the main square, Martyrs' Square, has been badly damaged or destroyed.

Image caption Zawiya's buildings are stained with the marks of battle

Large green flags, the colour of the Col Gaddafi's regime, have been hung over some buildings around the square. When the flags bluster in the wind, they reveal huge holes made by tanks and artillery fire.

The old mosque on the north side of the square has taken many direct hits and its minaret has been partially blown apart.

In the square itself, almost every tree has been uprooted or badly damaged by artillery fire. Many buildings show the scars and holes of heavy pounding with tank rounds and are pockmarked with bullet holes.

Everywhere, there are the tough, rugged fighters of the government's Khamis Brigade - the much-feared elite unit which spearheaded Col Gaddafi's campaign in Zawiya.

The other, obvious people in the centre of Zawiya were a couple of hundred pro-Gaddafi supporters.

Driving around the obliterated central square, in cars draped with green flags and posters of the "Leader", they chanted pro-government slogans and celebrated their victory.

It was impossible to say whether these were the regime's supporters bussed-in from out of town, or residents of Zawiya genuinely welcoming the end of two weeks of fighting.

Officially, the government says that only 14 people were killed in the battle for Zawiya and that fighting was not actually particularly heavy.

Testimony from trusted BBC sources inside the town and from other reporters, who have managed to get in there in recent days, would suggest otherwise.

Prolonged fighting

Unconfirmed reports say as many as 10 anti-government fighters were buried in the town square during the fighting.

Image caption It is difficult to know if Gaddafi supporters in Zawiya were local residents, or had been brought in

There was no trace of the bodies or of the graves today - just a freshly dumped mountain of sand, flattened down by an earthmover.

We have also been given first-hand accounts of civilian casualties and it is difficult to imagine how such heavy fighting could not have resulted in significantly more deaths.

It is impossible to be certain because many people in Zawiya who would know, like doctors at the hospital, are reluctant to speak to journalists.

Earlier suggestions that Zawiya had been "wiped from the face of the earth" are clearly exaggerated but it will take a lot of time and effort to rebuild this place after such a bitter battle.

This is undoubtedly a significant military boost for Col Gaddafi here in the government's power-base of western Libya.

But in the bigger rebel-held towns in the east of the country, where the regime acknowledges there are significantly more opposition forces, the fighting may be even more prolonged with even greater loss of life.

For several days, international journalists have been lobbying the Libyan authorities to visit Zawiya, a town just 30 miles (48km) to the west of Tripoli.

Although, officially, we are allowed to go where we like and report the facts of this popular uprising - in practice government restrictions mean it is often impossible to report openly from areas around the capital.

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