Zawiya (Libya): With world pressure mounting strongly on Gaddafi, the anti-government movements also gained momentum with rebels taking control of this battle-scarred city nearest to the capital on Sunday.

The residents shouting "Free, free Libya," deployed tanks and anti-aircraft weapons to brace for an attack by troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi. The Obama administration offered "any type of assistance" to Libyans seeking to oust the longtime leader.

Meanwhile, politicians in the opposition stronghold of Benghazi set up their first leadership council to manage day-to-day affairs, taking a step towards forming what could be an alternative to Gaddafi's regime.

In the capital Tripoli, where Gaddafi is still firmly in control, state banks began handing out the equivalent of USD 400 per family in a bid to shore up public loyalty.

"The Libyan people are fully behind me," Gaddafi defiantly told Serbian TV, even as about half of the country was turning against him and world leaders moved to isolate him. "A small group (of rebels) is surrounded ... and it will be dealt with."

Gaddafi has launched by far the bloodiest crackdown in a wave of anti-government uprisings sweeping the Arab world, the most serious challenge to his four decades in power. The United States, Britain and the UN Security Council all slapped sanctions on Libya this weekend.

Clinton mounts pressure on Gaddafi

A day after President Barack Obama branded Gaddafi an illegitimate ruler who must leave power immediately, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton kept up pressure for him to step down and "call off the mercenaries" and other troops that remain loyal to him.

"We are just at the beginning of what will follow Gaddafi. ... But we've been reaching out to many different Libyans who are attempting to organize in the east and as the revolution moves westward there as well," Clinton said. "I think it's way too soon to tell how this is going to play out, but we're going to be ready and prepared to offer any kind of assistance that anyone wishes to have from the United States."

Two US senators said Washington should recognize and arm a provisional government in rebel-held areas of eastern Libya and impose a no-fly zone over the area, enforced by US warplanes, to stop attacks by the regime.

Gaddafi's son, Seif al-Islam, in an interview with US television, insisted that his father won't relinquish power and that Libya had not used force or airstrikes against its own people.
There were no reports of major violence or clashes on Sunday, although gunfire was heard after nightfall in Tripoli.

The regime, eager to reinforce its view that Libya is calm and under its control, took visiting journalists to Zawiya, 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of the capital of Tripoli on Sunday. The tour, however, confirmed that anti-government rebels control the center of the city of 200,000 people, with army tanks and anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickup trucks at the ready.

Hundreds of people chanted "Gaddafi out!" in central Zawiya, a key city close to an oil port and refineries. It also is the nearest population center to Tripoli to fall into rebel hands.

"We are all wanted," said one rebel at the square who did not want to give his name for fear of reprisals. "Zawiya in our hands is a direct threat to Tripoli."

On Zawiya's outskirts were pro-Gaddafi forces, also backed by tanks and anti-aircraft guns.
Before Zawiya fell to rebel forces, Gaddafi had scolded its residents on Thursday, saying they were in league with terror mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Rescue operations on

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was due in Washington on Monday to discuss with Obama other possible measures that could be taken against the Libyan government.

British and German military planes landed in Libya's desert, rescuing hundreds of oil workers and civilians stranded at remote sites over the weekend, while thousands of other foreigners were still stuck in Tripoli by bad weather and red tape. The secret military missions signal the readiness of Western nations to disregard Libya's territorial integrity when it comes to the safety of their citizens.

Thousands of Egyptian and Chinese expatriates, meanwhile, continued to stream out of Libya on its western border with Tunisia into camps near the frontier.

In Ukraine, a nurse believed to have a close relationship with Gaddafi was reported to have deserted Gaddafi after his crackdown. Halyna Kolotnytska, 38, arrived in Kiev early Sunday on a plane that evacuated 122 Ukrainians and 68 foreign nationals from Libya.

A US diplomatic cable released last year said the eccentric 68-year-old leader is deeply attached to Kolotnytska, describing her as a "voluptuous blonde" who always travels with Gaddafi because only she "knows his routine," and it suggested the two may be romantically involved.

The Segodnya daily cited Kolotnytska's daughter Tetyana as saying that her mother was out of danger and planned to return to Ukraine in the near future.

The paper said Kolotnytska moved to Libya nine years ago. She worked at a hospital before Gaddafi hired her.

"He is employing other Ukrainian women as nurses as well. Mom is one of them," Tetyana was quoted as saying. "For some reason, he doesn't trust Libyan women with that."

(Agencies)