Libyan rebels took control of this coastal city Saturday, clearing a major hurdle in their march toward Moammar Gadhafi's remaining bastion, the capital of Tripoli, just 30 miles away.
Rebel fighters said Gadhafi's troops put up little resistance before fleeing their posts in Zawiya's hospital and multistory buildings around the main square — another sign suggesting that the Libyan dictator's 42-year-old regime is crumbling.
Trucks and cars packed with rebels as well as civilians drove around Zawiya's central square, honking horns, flashing V-for-victory signs and yelling "Allahu akbar" or "God is great!" An ambulance crew posed for photos on the sidewalk while a rebel called through a loudspeaker on his truck, "Zawiya is liberated!"
Still, regime troops kept firing rockets and mortars at Zawiya from positions in the east even after rebels said they drove them out, and thunderous booms echoed across the city. The central hospital was hit by mortar rounds early Saturday, several hours after it was taken by rebels. The attack badly damaged the operating rooms, punching a hole into one of the outer walls. Metal slats from the ceiling were strewn across the floor, and soot-covered the operating tables.
Rebels fighting to oust Gadhafi have scored a number of victories in the six-month civil war only to see towns fall out of their hands. But the momentum appears to have firmly swung in the opposition's favor after months of near-deadlock, with the rebels holding much of the east and the Libyan regime in the west.
"Gadhafi's days are numbered," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman said during a visit to the de-facto rebel capital of Benghazi. "The best case scenario is for Gadhafi to step down now ... that's the best protection for civilians."
After nightfall Saturday, NATO aircraft resumed heavy bombing of targets inTripoli.
The Libyan leader has appeared increasingly isolated in recent weeks as opposition fighters advanced on Tripoli, a metropolis of 2 million people, from the west, south and east and gained control of major supply roads into the capital.
Growing numbers of Tripoli residents also have fled for rebel-controlled areas in long convoys of cars packed with mattresses, children's bicycles and food. Refugees said Gadhafi's forces set up many checkpoints in the city and on the way south, forcing drivers to take back roads to evade detection.
On Saturday evening, the head of the rebels' National Transitional Council appeared on the opposition's TV satellite channel evening urging the citizens of Tripoli to be patient.
Mustafa Abdel-Jalil told Libyans to safeguard their belongings and buildings in Tripoli in anticipation of possible battles in Tripoli as the rebels move closer.
"We have always called Tripoli the capital of a free Libya," Mustafa Abdul-Jalil said in the short address. "We are depending on you to protect your wealth, your ports and your national institutions."
In an indication of challenges ahead, however, rebel military spokesman Col. Ahmed Bani said his troops fell back after claiming control in the eastern oil port of Brega, losing the industrial section to Gadhafi's forces. The town has frequently changed hands throughout the conflict.
At a news conference, Bani said rebels captured the city of Zlitan, 90 miles (140 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, after more than two months of fighting.
"Zlitan is now completely liberated after a severe fight, and for the first time I can say we have control over it," Bani told reporters Saturday.
Zawiya — site of an oil refinery — emerged as a key prize early in the war when the majority of its residents rose up against Gadhafi as anti-regime protests first swept the country in mid-February. Government troops recaptured the city in brutal fighting a month later.
It took rebels a week to take complete control of the city, which has a population of about 200,000. Fighters were bogged down around the central square for much of the week, held back by mortar, rocket and anti-aircraft fire from Gadhafi's troops. However, on Friday afternoon, rebel reinforcements arrived and pushed toward the square and the hospital, driving out regime forces before nightfall, said 21-year-old rebel fighter Mohammed Abu Daya.
The rebels said Saturday that they were now driving Gadhafi's forces even farther east, toward the village of Jedaim on the outskirts of Zawiya.
Gadhafi's forces fired rockets and mortars at the city, killing a doctor his wife and their 9-month-old baby when a mortar hit their home, medics said.
Zawiya's main square was covered with traces of the recent fighting. Nearly every window in the surrounding hotel, banks and government office buildings was shattered, and bullet and shrapnel holes marred every wall. Shelling had collapsed two floors of one of the five buildings near the square that had been used as Gadhafi sniper positions.
The dead bodies of two government fighters lay in the square's central plaza, covered by blankets. Rebels held their breath as they passed the bodies, which some said had been there for days.
Zawiya native Faiz Ibrahim, 42, took great pleasure in walking safely through his hometown's central square. Ibrahim, trained as an engineer, had taken up arms to defend the city early in the uprising, but went underground when Gadhafi's forces retook the town. He came out of hiding as soon as rebels from the south entered the city.
"We praise God that we can come here now that we have liberated the square," he said, his Kalashnikov rifle over his shoulder. "We have to see all the destruction that it took to get them out."
Zawiya's hospital had been held by Gadhafi forces during the week of fighting over the city and served as a snipers' position. The ground floor survived relatively intact. Bangladeshi workers who had been stuck in the hospital were busy mopping the ground floor.
A group of doctors arrived in an ambulance to see their place of work for the first time in days.
"I am very happy to come back to my second house," said Ahmed Abu Gundeel, one of the doctors. "I was forced to work with the (Gadhafi) brigades. But now I am free. I can do whatever I want."
On the ground floor, the dialysis department was already operating and about a dozen patients were hooked up to machines. Mohammed Bashir Mansour, 51, said he arrived at the hospital at 8 a.m., after hearing that Gadhafi's forces had been driven out the night before.
Abu Daya, the rebel fighter, said Gadhafi forces had not put up heavy resistance.
"In the hospital, there was some resistance by shooting. After the Gadhafi soldiers fled Zawiya, they started firing mortars. We took about 20 prisoners yesterday and three today, who had hidden themselves," he said.
Several fighters were napping in the hospital lobby on cots and waiting room chairs, cradling their weapons. From the roof of the hospital, a few green flags were still visible, flying from several buildings a few hundred yards (meters) away.
Ayman Kheir, 25, had been a resident in the hospital for one year when the uprising broke out and remained there after it was occupied by Gadhafi's forces. He said the doctors were forced to treat government fighters at gunpoint and about 20 percent of them were non-Libyan mercenaries.
He fled from the hospital to Tripoli about two weeks ago, he said, but came back to Zawiya when the rebels arrived. Saturday was his first time back in the hospital.
"It's like coming back home after a long time away. It feel very good," he said.
Associated Press writers Rami al-Shaheibi in Benghazi and Hadeel Al-Shalchi in Cairo contributed to this report.