Gadhafi drives rebels from strategic oil port

RAS LANOUF, Libya (AP) — Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s forces pushed rebel fighters from the strategic oil port of Ras Lanouf on Thursday, driving the opposition from the city with a withering rain of artillery fire.

Fleeing rebels said government forces were showering rockets or tank shells on the city in preparation for a full-scale advance. The lightly armed opposition sped back to their territory by the hundreds, fleeing eastward in cars and pickup trucks mounted with machine guns.

Taking back Ras Lanouf would be a major victory for Mr. Gadhafi, re-establishing his power over a badly damaged but vital oil facility and pushing his zone of control further along the main coastal highway running from rebel territory to the capital, Tripoli.

Retreating through the pancake-flat desert scrubland along the highway and scanning the skies for government warplanes, the rebels pleaded for military help from Western powers. European nations meeting in Brussels offered diplomatic help and more financial sanctions on Col. Gadhafi but made no significant move toward stepping up the no-fly zone sought by the rebels.

The international Red Cross said dozens of civilians have been wounded or killed in recent days in grueling battles between Col. Gadhafi’s army and the opposition.

“We need help from the international community, but we just hear promises,” said Mohammed Ali Al Zuaiee, a 48-year-old rebel fighter. “They are doing nothing.”

Shells hit a series of buildings as Col. Gadhafi’s tanks moved further along the coast road than they have been since the rebels seized most of the country’s east.

The main hospital in Ras Lanouf was hit by artillery or an airstrike, and the rebels are pulling their staff out and evacuating patients to the towns of Brega and Ajdabiya, said Gebril Hewada, a doctor on the opposition’s health committee in the main eastern city of Benghazi. He said no staffers were hurt, but he didn’t know about patients.

The retreat was a major setback on a day of rebel victory on the diplomatic front. France became the first country to formally recognize the rebels’ newly created Interim Governing Council, saying it planned to exchange ambassadors after President Nicolas Sarkozy met with two representatives of the group based in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.

“It breaks the ice,” said Mustafa Gheriani, an opposition spokesman. “We expect Italy to do it, and we expect England to do it.”

French activist-intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy sat in the meeting and said France was planning “targeted operations” to defend civilians if the interim council demands them and the international community approves. Mr. Henri-Levy did not elaborate, and the French government declined to comment, so it was not clear if Mr. Henri-Levy was describing a new, more aggressive plan for intervention.

NATO has said it is planning a no-fly zone but would act only with the approval of the U.N. Security Council, which diplomats say would hinge on the OK of African and Arab countries. Britain and France have backed the rebels’ calls for a no-fly zone, but the Obama adminstration has expressed deep reservations about involvement in another conflict in the greater Middle East.

NATO said it had started round-the-clock surveillance of the airspace over Libya, and British Foreign Secretary William Hague said a meeting of EU foreign ministers would discuss how to isolate the regime.

Germany said it had frozen billions in assets of the Libyan Central Bank and other state-run agencies. The United States, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Austria and other countries also have frozen Col. Gadhafi’s assets.

“The brutal suppression of the Libyan freedom movement can now no longer be financed from funds that are in German banks,” Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle said.

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