BENGHAZI, Libya — Rebels seeking to overturn the 40-year rule of Col. Moammar Gadhafi repelled a concerted assault by his forces Thursday on cities close to the capital, removing any doubt that Libya’s patchwork of protests had evolved into an increasingly well-armed revolutionary movement.
The series of determined stands by rebel forces Thursday — especially in the strategic city of Zawiyah, near important oil resources and 30 miles from the capital, Tripoli — presented the gravest threat yet to the Libyan leader. There, more than 100 people were killed as Gadhafi’s forces turned automatic weapons on a mosque filled with rebels, a witness said. Still, residents rallied afterward to protest.
Gadhafi’s evident frustration at the resistance in Zawiyah spilled out in a rant by telephone over the state television network charging that Osama bin Laden had drugged the town’s youth into a rebellious frenzy.
Fueled by popular anger, the help of breakaway leaders of the armed forces and some of their troops, and weapons from looted military stockpiles or smuggled across the border, the rebellion has escalated quickly and violently in little more than a week.
At the revolt’s starting point, in the eastern city of Benghazi, Fathi Terbil, 39, the human rights lawyer whose detention first ignited the protests, drew a map of rebel-held territory in striking distance of Tripoli. “It is only a matter of days,” he said.
A turning point in the uprising’s evolution was arguably the defection of the interior minister, Abdel Fattah Younes al-Abidi, an army general who had been a close ally of Gadhafi.
The break by al-Abidi, who has family roots near the revolt’s eastern origins, encouraged other disaffected police, military and state security personnel to change sides as well. “We are hoping to use his experience,” said Terbil, who some called the linchpin of the revolt.
In parts of the country, the revolutionaries, as they call themselves, appear to have access to potentially large stores of weapons, including small arms and heavy artillery, automatic weapons smuggled from the Egyptian border and rocket-propelled grenades taken from army bases, like the Kabila in Benghazi.
So far, at least in the east, many of the weapons appear to be held in storage to defend against a future attempt by Gadhafi’s forces to retake the territory. At a former security services building in Benghazi on Thursday, men in fatigues prepared to transport anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons to what one said was a storage depot.