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Libya rebels push back Gadhafi forces’ attack on oil port
Question of the Day
BREGA, Libya (AP) — Opponents of Moammar Gadhafi repelled an attack by the Libyan leader’s forces trying to retake a key coastal oil installation in a topsy-turvy battle Wednesday in which shells splashed in the Mediterranean and a warplane bombed a beach where rebel fighters were charging over the dunes. At least six people were killed in the fighting.
The assault on the Brega oil port was the first major regime counteroffensive against the opposition-held eastern half of Libya, where the population backed by mutinous army units rose up and drove out Col. Gadhafi’s rule over the past two weeks.
For the past week, pro-Gadhafi forces have been focusing on the west, securing his stronghold in the capital Tripoli and trying to take back nearby rebel-held cities with only mixed success.
But the foray east against opposition-held Brega appeared to stumble. The pro-Gadhafi forces initially recaptured the oil facilities Wednesday morning. But then a wave of opposition citizen militias drove them out again, cornering them in a nearby university campus where they battled for several hours until the approximately 200 Gadhafi loyalists fled, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene.
In the capital, Col. Gadhafi vowed, “We will fight until the last man and woman.” He lashed out against Europe and the United States for their pressure on him to step down, warning that thousands of Libyans will die if U.S. and NATO forces intervene in the conflict.
The United States is moving naval and air forces closer to Libyan shores and is calling for Col. Gadhafi to give up power immediately. The U.S., Britain and other NATO countries are drawing up contingency plans to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Col. Gadhafi’s air forces from striking rebels. But the idea has been rejected by Russia, which holds a veto-wielding seat on the U.N. Security Council.
“We will not accept an intervention like that of the Italians that lasted decades,” Col. Gadhafi said, referring to Italy’s colonial rule early in the 20th Century. “We will not accept a similar American intervention. This will lead to a bloody war and thousands of Libyans will die if America and NATO enter Libya.”
Opposition members said they believe Col. Gadhafi was pulling up reinforcements from bases deep in the deserts of southwestern Libya, flying them to the fronts on the coast.
Soon after sunrise Wednesday, a large force of Gadhafi loyalists in around 50 SUVs, some mounted with machine guns, descended on opposition-held Brega, 460 miles east of Tripoli along the Mediterranean. The force caught a small opposition contingent guarding the site by surprise and it fled, said Ahmed Dawas, an anti-Gadhafi fighter at a checkpoint outside the port.
The pro-Gadhafi forces seized the port, airstrip and the oil facilities where about 4,000 personnel work, as regime warplanes hit an ammunition depot on the outskirts of the nearby rebel-held city of Ajdabiya, witnesses said.
Midmorning, the opposition counterattacked. Anti-Gadhafi fighters with automatic weapons sped out of Ajdabiya in pickup trucks, heading for Brega, 40 miles away. Mr. Dawas said they retook the oil facilities and airstrip. Other witnesses reported regime forces were surrounded by rebels. The sound of screaming warplanes and the crackle of heavy gunfire could be heard as the witnesses spoke to The Associated Press by phone.
By the afternoon, the regime fighters fled the oil facilities and holed up in a nearby university campus, where they came under siege by anti-Gadhafi fighters, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene.
Machine gun and automatic weapons fire rattled in the air, and shells lobbed from the campus went over the anti-Gadhafi side to splash in the Mediterranean.
At one point, a warplane from Col. Gadhafi’s air force swooped overhead and an explosion was heard. A witness said it struck an empty stretch of dunes near the battle, sending a plume of sand into the air but causing no injuries in an apparent attempt to intimidate the anti-Gadhafi side.
But opposition citizen militias poured into the battle, arriving from Ajdabiya and armed with assault rifles. They moved through the dunes along the beach against the campus next to a pristine blue-water Mediterranean beach. Those without guns picked up bottles and put wicks in them to make firebombs.
By Michael P. Orsi
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