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Giant Fireball Reported As Libya Strikes Oil Facility

Libyan rebels watch as pillars of smoke rise from the oil facility just outside the town of Ras Lanuf on Wednesday.
Marco Longari
AFP/Getty Images
Libyan rebels watch as pillars of smoke rise from the oil facility just outside the town of Ras Lanuf on Wednesday.

Libyan government forces struck an oil pipeline and storage facility near the coastal city of Ras Lanuf on Wednesday, killing at least four people as they pounded rebels with artillery and gunfire in two major cities.

A giant yellow fireball tore across the sky above the Sidr oil facility, 360 miles east of Tripoli, an Associated Press report said. Video footage from Al-Jazeera showed plumes of black smoke apparently from burning oil pouring from the facility — one of the biggest refineries in Africa. But the extent of the damage wasn't immediately clear.

Opposition spokesman Mustafa Gheriani told the AP that government artillery hit a pipeline supplying Sidr from oil fields in the desert. He said an oil storage depot was also hit, apparently by an airstrike.


Of the six major terminals in Libya, Sidr exports the largest volume of oil — loading an estimated 447,000 barrels per day, according to the International Energy Agency.

Four bodies were brought to the morgue at the hospital in Ras Lanouf, doctors said.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reported that government fighters had launched a series of air attacks Tuesday about 6 miles west of the city. Rebels said the strikes hit an abandoned house and a water main, cutting off much — if not all — of the water supply to Ras Lanuf. The assult indicated that regime forces may be preparing to move on the city.

"The town itself of Ras Lanuf has been cleared out of civilians, and we're just waiting to see what happens next," Kenyon said.

Troops loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi reportedly shelled homes and other buildings in the city of Zawiya, a resident of the nearby town of Sabratha told the AP by telephone.


A Sky News correspondent in Zawiya showed rebel-controlled tanks and vehicles mounted with machine guns in the city's main square, and said pro-Gadhafi forces at the city's edge were firing at moving vehicles, including ambulances and civilian cars.

The government claimed it had recaptured the city, and Libyan state TV broadcast images of a crowd of people with green flags, carrying images of Gadhafi and shouting, "The people want Col. Gadhafi."

There was no way to immediately verify the government's claim, as phone lines from the city have not been working for days.

Gadhafi's successes have left Western powers struggling to come up with a plan to support the rebels without becoming ensnared in the complex and fast-moving conflict. On Wednesday, a high-ranking member of the Libyan military flew to Cairo with a message for Egyptian army officials from Gadhafi, but no further details were known.

U.S. Advisers To Discuss No-Fly Zone

Hours before the airstrikes near Ras Lanuf, Gadhafi warned that Libyans would fight back if Western nations impose a no-fly zone to prevent the regime from using its air force to attack opposition rebels.

In an interview broadcast on Turkey's state-run TRT Turk television, Gadhafi said imposing airspace restrictions would lead Libyans to understand that the foreigners' aim was to seize oil and take their freedom away. If that happened, he said, "Libyans will take up arms and fight."

In Washington, top U.S. national security advisers were meeting at the White House to discuss potential responses to the violence in Libya, including possible military options and a no-fly zone.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was attending the meeting along with security adviser Tom Donilon, CIA Director Leon Panetta and top Pentagon officials, has said that any no-fly zone is a matter for the United Nations to authorize.

Britain and France are pushing for a U.N. resolution to create a no-fly zone. While the U.S. may be persuaded to sign on, such a move is unlikely to win the backing of veto-wielding Security Council members Russia and China, which traditionally object to such steps as infringements on national sovereignty.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Sky News on Wednesday that the alliance was "not looking to intervene in Libya, but we have asked our military to conduct prudent planning for all eventualities."

In the TRT Turk interview, Gadhafi said there were no legitimate grounds for a foreign intervention in his country, insisting that Libya was only fighting al-Qaida as in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

"If al-Qaida seizes Libya, that will amount to a huge disaster," Gadhafi said. "If they [al-Qaida fighters] take this place over, the whole region, including Israel, will be dragged into chaos. Then, [al-Qaida leader Osama] Bin Laden may seize all of North Africa that faces Europe."

Meanwhile, an Egyptian airport official told The Associated Press that a high-ranking member of the Libyan government landed in Cairo Wednesday saying he had a message from Gadhafi.

The airport official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the head of Libya's logistics and supply authority arrived on a private jet after flying over Greece en route to Egypt. Libyan embassy staff told Egyptian officials that Maj. Gen Abdul-Rahman bin Ali al-Saiid al-Zawi was carrying a message from Gadhafi.

There have been no public contacts between the Libyan regime and Egypt's ruling generals since the Libyan uprising broke out on Feb. 15.

BBC Reporters Subjected To Mock Executions

Three British Broadcasting Corp. staff were detained, beaten and subjected to mock executions by pro-regime soldiers in Libya while they attempted to reach the western city of Zawiya, the broadcaster said Wednesday.

The news organization said the crew, members of a BBC Arabic team, were detained on Monday by Gadhafi loyalists at a check point about 6 miles south of Zawiya.

Chris Cobb-Smith, a British journalist and part of the crew, said the group were moved between several locations, in some cases alongside civilian captives who had visible injuries from heavy beatings. On Tuesday, the crew were driven to a building in Tripoli which they believed was the headquarters of Libya's overseas intelligence service. The men were told to bow their heads and line along a wall by soldiers.

"A man with a small submachine gun was putting it to the nape of everyone's neck in turn. He pointed the barrel at each of us. When he got to me at the end of the line, he pulled the trigger twice. The shots went past my ear," Cobb-Smith said.

The BBC said the men were held for 21 hours before they were released, and have since left Libya. It reported the details of their detention in bulletins late on Wednesday.

Feras Killani, another of the crew, said in one location he was forced to his knees while a guard cocked a gun in a mock execution. "I thought they were going to shoot me," he told the BBC.

Killani said he was accused of being a British spy, abused for his Palestinian heritage and beaten by guards. One captor struck him "with his fist, then boots, then knees. Then he found a plastic pipe on the ground and beat me with that. Then one of the soldiers gave him a long stick."

Cameraman Goktay Koraltan, who is Turkish, said he feared for the crew lives. "I thought they would shoot us, I could hear guns loading. I was scared to death I thought it was the execution moment," he said.

Killani said four other men being held in one facility told him they had been without food for three days and had been repeatedly tortured. Others had visible signs of abuse, including broken ribs, he said.

Benghazi Works To Fill Political Vacuum

In the city of Benghazi, opposition leaders were struggling to organize the provisional government that they say represents all of Libya. As a central authority tries to assert itself in the east, civil society is stepping into the vacuum — but there are fears about the future.

Amina Megheirbi, a university professor and organizer in Benghazi, told NPR on Wednesday that "everyone is trying to help" keep the city and the newly established seat of government functioning amid the vacuum created by the three-week-old civil war.

At a former English-language school, young men have volunteered to provide food and clothing to people in need and to help with such chores as cleaning up schools and hospitals.

With no Internet and cell phones providing only spotty coverage, some volunteers on Wednesday were producing a newsletter to keep the community informed.

Hanna el Gallal, a professor of law who sits on the newly formed education committee, said it would be a tall order to disentangle the national curriculum from the Gadhafi regime.

"Our education is controlled by Gadhafi," she told NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. "It's based on all his thoughts and beliefs, so now we are trying to clear the curriculum of all his words.

"We have no institutions," she said.

At Benghazi's zoo, the people who work there still take care of more than 200 animals, feeding lions, elephants and baboons despite receiving no pay.

Zookeeper Khalid al-Habouni is concerned about how he and others will continue to care for the animals. "How will we manage things? How long can this go on? I have no idea what will happen. I just hope it won't be worse?" he said.

On Tuesday, someone threw a homemade explosive at one of the hotels in Benghazi where journalists were staying.

Jalal el Gallal, a rebel spokesman, blamed the incident on Gadhafi sympathizers "trying to sow panic."

With reporting from NPR's Peter Kenyon in Ras Lanuf and Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Benghazi, Libya. Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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