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Rebels Deploy Around Strategic Libyan Oil Port

Mutinous army units in pickup trucks armed with machine-guns and rocket launchers deployed around the strategic oil installation at Brega Thursday, a day after the opposition foiled an attempt by loyalists of leader Moammar Gadhafi to retake control of the port in rebel-held east Libya.

A rebel fighter advances on the front line against Libyan government forces on March 2, 2011 in al-Brega, Libya.
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Above: A rebel fighter advances on the front line against Libyan government forces on March 2, 2011 in al-Brega, Libya.

Map of Libya
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Above: Map of Libya

Government warplanes launched a new airstrike on the town in the morning, according to witnesses who said they could not immediately identify the target. But it was likely an airstrip that belongs to the huge oil complex on the Mediterranean coast.

"We are in a position to control the area and we are deploying our forces," a rebel army officer in Brega told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Wednesday's attack on Brega, some 460 miles east of Gadhafi's stronghold in the capital Tripoli, marked the regime's first counteroffensive on the eastern half of the country, which fell quickly under opposition control after the revolt began on Feb. 15. It was the latest reminder of the deep difficulties the regime's armed forces an array of militiamen, mercenaries and military units have faced in trying to roll back the uprising against 41 years of Gadhafi's rule.

Opposition leaders are pleading for foreign powers to launch airstrikes to help them oust Gadhafi as the United States moves military forces closer to Libyan shores to put military muscle behind Washington's calls for Gadhafi to give up power immediately.

But the Pentagon on Wednesday tried to play down the idea of using military force in Libya, including a "no-fly zone" that Defense Secretary Robert Gates said would first require attacking Gadhafi's government.

"Let's just call a spade a spade: A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses," Gates told lawmakers. He added that the operation would require more warplanes than are on a single U.S. aircraft carrier.

Brega is the second-largest petroleum and natural gas facility in OPEC-member Libya and has been held by the opposition since last week.

After Wednesday's battle for control of the area ended with Gadhafi's forces fleeing under rebel fire, mutinous army units arrived in the town Thursday sent from the opposition stronghold city of Benghazi, also in the east.

Dozens of the rebel army forces, armed with Kalashnikov rifles and dressed in camouflage army uniforms with checkered keffiyehs around their necks or heads fanned out around Brega. They were backed by at least a dozen pickup trucks with machine-guns bolted onto their beds or rocket launchers in tow.

There was no sign of any pro-Gadhafi forces around Brega and aside from the airstrike, the area was calm. No casualties from the airstrike were reported, but a few rebel fighters were rushed to the hospital with wounds after a mortar they were handling exploded.

"In the last 24 hours, we had a bit of a panic here," oil company employee Osman Rajab told the AP. "Now they [the rebel army] are trying to control the industrial areas," he said, referring to the oil complex.

At the edge of Brega's massive oil facility, the rebel army set up a line of defense, with soldiers, four pickup trucks mounted with machine guns and one truck towing a rocket launcher.

Wednesday's battle was fought primarily by a ragtag popular militia, armed men from nearby towns and cities who rushed in in pickup trucks and overpowered several hundred pro-Gadhafi forces after chasing them into a university on the outskirts of the town.

In the nearby rebel-held town of Ajdabiya, which sent fighters to the battle at Brega, morgue officials said the death toll from fighting rose to 14 from at least 10 a day earlier. The western gate of the town was reinforced with heavy weaponry Thursday against any further attempts by government forces to retake control of the area. Rebels positioned a tank, four anti-aircraft guns mounted on pickup trucks and four rocket launchers at the gate.

For the past week, pro-Gadhafi forces have been focusing on the west, securing Tripoli and trying to take back nearby rebel-held cities. But the regime has seemed to struggle to bring an overwhelming force to bear against cities largely defended by local residents using weapons looted from storehouses and backed by allied army units.

Pro-Gadhafi forces succeeded over the weekend in retaking two small towns. But the major western rebel-held cities of Zawiya and Misrata, near Tripoli, have repelled repeated, major attacks — including new forays against Zawiya on Wednesday.

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