Gadhafi Forces Attack Rebel-Held Towns In The East
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Paramilitary groups and other forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi battled for control over a major oil refinery and a massive weapons depot Wednesday in a counter-offensive against the rebel-held eastern half of the country.
The offensive coincided with a televised speech by Gadhafi in which he said Libya would conduct a "bloody war" if U.S. or NATO forces intervene in the conflict. He added that "thousands and thousands" of his people would die as a result.
The fighting was centered on the oil facilities at Brega, which lies at the western edge of the opposition-controlled territory in the east. Witnesses told The Associated Press on Wednesday morning that it had been retaken by a large convoy of pro-Gadhafi forces. But hours later, people on the outskirts of Brega said fighting resumed.
They said some of the regime's forces were surrounded by rebels. The sound of screaming warplanes and the crackle of heavy gunfire could be heard as the witnesses spoke by phone. Opposition fighters at checkpoints outside Brega said the opposition had retaken the oil facilities and an airstrip.
Ahmed Dawas, an opposition fighter at a checkpoint outside Brega, said a large force of pro-Gadhafi fighters in about 50 SUVs descended on Brega shortly after sunrise and swept over the facility, taking the airstrip as warplanes struck nearby targets. But later, he said, anti-regime fighters from the nearby city of Ajdabiya and from Brega's residents flooded in and took back it back.
There was no immediate word on casualties.
Rebel fighters carrying automatic weapons, along with a tank, sped out of Ajdabiya in pickup trucks toward the oil port 40 miles away to join the fight.
At the same time, Ajdabiya's people geared up to defend their city from attacks by the regime. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, reporting from the opposition-held city of Benghazi, said there have been several bombing attempts on Ajdabiya, the site of a key weapons depot.
"The weapons depot there is vast. It has about 35 warehouses filled with all sorts of munitions, including surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and other arms. And so it is a very strategically important place for the rebel army and clearly also for pro-Gadhafi forces," she said.
At the gates of the city, hundreds of residents took up positions on the road from Brega, armed with Kalashnikovs and hunting rifles, along with a few rocket-propelled grenade launchers. They set up two large rocket launchers and an anti-aircraft gun in the road.
One rebel military leader, Capt. Faris Zawya, told NPR that forces in Adjadabia are "still holding the line."
Scores of armed young men also streamed out of Benghazi, which is seen as the capital of "free Libya," to reinforce pro-democracy forces in Brega and Ajdabiya, Garcia-Navarro said.
"They say they are willing to die to maintain their hold of eastern Libya," she said. "And not only their hold of eastern Libya — they say that once they have defended this place, they will push out and try and overthrow Moammar Gadhafi once and for all."
From his stronghold in the capital, Tripoli, Gadhafi repeated claims that al-Qaida is behind the uprising, insisting that a "sleeper cell'' launched the protests.
Some opposition members told the AP that they believe Gadhafi was pulling up reinforcements from bases deep in the deserts of southwestern Libya, flying them to the fronts on the coast.
People in the eastern city of Tobruk, near the border with Egypt, told NPR that they were expecting the regime's counteroffensive given Gadhafi's commitment to cling to power. They said they are ready to join the fight — but are equally adamant that they will not accept the presence of foreign troops in their country.
But members of the opposition in Tobruk said they want the international community to impose a no-fly zone over Libya — something that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said is under active consideration.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates downplayed the prospect of U.S. military intervention in Libya during a Pentagon news conference Tuesday. He did not, however, rule out options such as providing air cover for Libyan rebels.
"We also have to think about, frankly, the use of the U.S. military in another country in the Middle East," he said, referring to the long war in Iraq and its backlash in the Arab world. "So I think we're sensitive about all of these things, but we will provide the president with a full range of options."
Gates said he has ordered two Navy amphibious warships into the Mediterranean Sea, along with an extra 400 Marines, in case they are needed to evacuate civilians or provide humanitarian relief.
NATO has said establishing a no-fly zone over Libya would require a clear mandate from the U.N. Security Council. This is unlikely because Russia, which has veto power in the council, has already rejected the idea.
Still, some diplomats told the AP on Wednesday that NATO countries are drawing up contingency plans modeled on the no-fly zones over the Balkans in the 1990s in case the international community decides to impose an air embargo over the North African nation.
The diplomats, who asked that they not be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, cited NATO's aerial offensive against Yugoslavia in 1999 — which did not have the U.N. Security Council mandate — in response to the crackdown on ethnic Albanian nationalists in Kosovo. The onslaught ended after 78 days with Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic agreeing to withdraw his forces from Kosovo.
"Very clearly there are such discussions going on, and contingency plans are being worked on, but there is no decision yet," said a senior EU official who also declined to be identified.
With reporting from NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Benghazi and Nishant Dahiya in Tobruk, Libya. This story also contains material from The Associated Press.