Monday, March 7, 2011
Libyan fighter jets pounded a rebel-held oil port Monday as opposition forces tried to regroup from a government offensive that has stalled their advance westward toward the capital.
Government warplanes launched two airstrikes outside the oil facility in Ras Lanuf. There was no apparent damage or casualties.
"The airstrikes that we saw today ...mostly just hit in the sand," NPR's Peter Kenyon reported from Ras Lanuf, which is marked by large oil tank farms and rows of worker housing in mostly empty desert. "There are burned-out buses and trucks and cars littering the side of the road every few kilometers — these are remnants of the previous fighting from several days ago."
The rebels took control of the city as they pushed out of the rebel-held eastern half of Libya late last week for the first time, capturing the oil port of Brega as they marched toward Tripoli.
But their advance was turned back by a ferocious counterassault Sunday in the village of Bin Jawwad, about 30 miles west of Ras Lanuf. Pro-regime forces used helicopter gunships, artillery and rockets to recapture the tiny desert town.
The rebels said they can take on Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi's elite ground forces, but are outgunned in the face of air power.
"We don't want a foreign military intervention, but we do want a no-fly zone," rebel fighter Ali Suleiman told The Associated Press. The opposition, he added, can take on "the rockets and the tanks, but not Gadhafi's air force."
Suleiman said his forces were waiting for reinforcements in Ras Lanouf and have orders "to stay here and guard the refinery, because oil is what makes the world go round."
Mohamad Samir, an army colonel fighting with the rebels, also told the AP that his forces were expecting reinforcements from the east.
Rebels told NPR that locals joined pro-Gadhafi forces to ambush them in Bin Jawwad. Regime troops reportedly commandeered several houses, set up sniper positions and fired on rebel forces that entered the village thinking it was still under their control.
"We have had multiple reports — which we cannot confirm — of civilians, especially women, being pushed to the window frames when fighting was going on, which would be an allegation of the Gadhafi forces using them as human shields if that was confirmed," Kenyon said.
Mohammed Ibrahim, a wounded fighter, his white shirt stained red and his arm dripping with blood, said the fighting was brutal.
"The firing came from balconies from the houses, bullets were coming from all sides" he said. "Gadhafi's forces and the traitors in the city of Bin Jawwad attacked us."
AP reporters witnessed air attacks by helicopters on the rebel forces and heavy fighting on the ground. A warplane also attacked a small military base at Ras Lanuf and destroyed three hangars and a small building. Regime forces shelled rebel positions at Ras Lanuf with rockets and artillery. Ambulances sped toward the town and rebels moved trucks carrying multi-rocket launchers toward the front lines.
Eight people died and 59 were wounded in the fighting around Bin Jawwad, Ibrahim Said, deputy director of Ajdabiya hospital, told the AP.
The rebels regrouped in Ras Lanuf, where MiG fighters circled over rebel positions Monday before launching airstrikes behind their front lines in the morning and afternoon.
Ras Lanuf is now the front line in the battle for Libya. But Kenyon said it represents "a defensive front line as opposed to a staging area for the next push west by the rebels, which is what we've been seeing previously."
Anti-government fighters hope to push toward Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown, and then on through to Tripoli. Many of the rebels in Ras Lanuf told NPR Monday that "Inshalla [God willing], I will be sleeping tonight in Sirte," but that seemed unlikely given the latest fighting.
Guarded by highly trained and heavily fortified units, Sirte remains a major obstacle for the ragtag opposition.
"The level of experience on the rebels' side is very low," Kenyon said. "As we made our way to Ras Lanuf today, we stopped and talked to fighters at checkpoints. Some of them had anti-tank cannons, some of them had SAM7 surface-to-air missiles, some of them had RPGs. ... And I would ask each one of them, "Have you ever fired this before? Have you ever had any experience?" and every single one of them said, "No no, this is the first time.'"
If the rebels continue to advance, even slowly, Gadhafi's heavy dependence on air power could prompt the West to try to hurriedly enforce a no-fly zone over the country. The United Nations has already imposed sanctions against Libya, and the U.S. has moved military forces closer to its shores to back up its demand that Gadhafi step down.
The uprising in Libya, which began Feb. 15, is already longer and much bloodier than the relatively quick revolts that overthrew the longtime authoritarian leaders of neighboring Egypt and Tunisia. Hundreds if not thousands of people have died during the unrest, although tight restrictions on media make it near impossible to get an accurate tally.
The U.N. is sending former Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdelilah Al-Khatib as a special envoy to Libya for urgent consultations aimed at ending the bloodshed. A fact-finding mission also is being dispatched to Tripoli to investigate the violence and its effects on the civilian population.
A team from the European Union arrived in Libya over the weekend and is expected to report on the humanitarian situation by Friday, when EU leaders are expected to meet and draw up a plan for assistance.
Valerie Amos, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said the Benghazi Red Crescent reported that the western city of Misurata was under attack by government forces.
"Humanitarian organizations need urgent access now," Amos said in a statement. "People are injured and dying and need help immediately."
More than 200,000 people have fled the country, most of them foreign workers. The exodus is creating a humanitarian crisis across the border with Tunisia — another North African country in turmoil after an uprising in January that ousted its longtime leader.
Many of those who have fled Libya's conflict are migrant workers from Bangladesh. Three died Sunday after jumping off a boat carrying more than 1,000 Bangladeshi workers from Tripoli to the Greek Island of Crete, NPR'S David Greene reported from the Tunisian border town of Zarzis.
Greek authorities said several dozen passengers climbed into the water during the night after the boat docked in Crete. Fourteen people were missing.
"It's not clear why the refugees escaped the boat, but there's speculation they hoped to avoid being sent home and preferred to stay in the European Union to look for work," Greene said. "Bangladeshis feeling Libya have poured over the border into eastern Tunisia. Many share the same story: When the unrest began, their bosses told them to get out."
With reporting from NPR's Peter Kenyon in Ras Lanuf, Libya; David Greene in Zarzis, Tunisia; and Teri Schultz in Brussels, Belgium. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.