ZINTAN, Libya — Families fleeing their homes to avoid a possible rebel assault on the Libyan capital described deteriorating living conditions in Tripoli: Power outages lasting days, gunbattles at night and a climate of fear in which no one dares to criticize the regime.
With opposition fighters steadily gaining ground in the six-month-old civil war, there are signs that Moammar Gadhafi's 42-year-old rule may be unraveling. The rebels seized Libya's last functioning oil refinery Thursday and claimed to have captured most of the city of Zawiya, just 30 miles west of the capital along the Mediterranean coast.
A rebel victory in Zawiya could leave Gadhafi nearly cornered in his increasingly isolated stronghold of Tripoli. Rebel fighters are now closing in on the capital from the west and the south, while NATO controls the seas to the north. The opposition is in charge of most of the eastern half of the country.
The Libyan leader has given no indication he is willing to relinquish power, however, and rebels could easily get bogged down on the way to the capital or face a protracted battle there.
"We know he (Gadhafi) is finished," said Mohammed Said, a 50-year-old schoolteacher who fled Tripoli on Tuesday. "We just don't know when."
Tripoli residents are aware of the rebel advances but won't speak out against the regime, even among friends, for fear of arrest.
"We are afraid of one another," said Said, who now lives with his 13-member family in his parents' home in the mountain town of Zintan, the nerve center of the rebels' recent push toward the Gadhafi-held coast.
A 42-year-old Islamic schoolteacher and her four children, ages 12 to 17, left their home in the Tripoli neighborhood of Tajoura, an anti-regime bastion, on Monday and reached Zintan through back roads.
The family members said they had lived in constant fear of Gadhafi loyalists and requested anonymity to avoid retribution.
Her 16-year-old son said he mostly stayed home in recent months, rarely going to school, to avoid being searched and questioned at checkpoints. He said that out of 30 classmates, five were arrested because they participated in antigovernment protests in February.
The family left home with just a few belongings so neighbors would not be alerted to the departure, said the woman.