ZAWIYA, Libya — Rebels closed in on Moammar Gadhafi 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: Tripoli.
Today, the rebels said they have captured all of the strategic eastern port city of Brega, which has repeatedly changed hands in the 6-month-old civil war.
The territory remaining under Gadhafi's control has been shrinking in the past three weeks, with opposition fighters moving closer to his stronghold of Tripoli, a city 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 with rockets, mortar shells and antiaircraft 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.
The rebels are commanded by Rida Shaeb, a 47-year-old electrician who wore his workman's coveralls to the front line. "We are here to fight," he said. "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 rebel spokesman said. The rebels say they 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 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. He was Gadhafi's most trusted deputy for two decades but began to clash with the leader starting in the 1990s.
Rebel spokesman Mahmoud Shammam said that Jalloud had fled to a rebel-held area in the western mountains and was on his way to Europe.