- Associated Press - Thursday, March 3, 2011

BREGA, Libya (AP) — Rebels strengthened their hold on the strategic oil installation at Brega on Thursday after repelling an attempt by loyalists of Col. Moammar Gadhafi to retake it. International pressure on the Libyan leader increased as an international court began investigating whether to charge him and his inner circle with crimes against humanity.

Army units allied with the rebels fanned out in the oil facilities and port at Brega, armed with machine guns and rocket launchers. Government warplanes launched a new airstrike on the town in the morning, according to witnesses. It was not clear what they targeted, but it was likely an airstrip that belongs to the huge oil complex on the Mediterranean coast.

But there were no reports of casualties, and pro-Gadhafi forces have withdrew to another oil port, Ras Lanouf, 80 miles west along the Mediterranean coast after their defeat a day earlier.

“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.

In the opposition stronghold of Benghazi, east of the oil port, hundreds of mourners chanted, “Down with Gadhafi!” as they buried three of the at least 14 rebel fighters killed in Wednesday’s battle.

“Our message to Gadhafi is we are coming and we will make Libya free,” said one man in the crowd, Sami Mosur. “He is a criminal. We are coming to him from Benghazi; we are coming from everywhere. He is a killer.”

The fighting at Brega halted for now the regime’s first counteroffensive on the opposition-held eastern half of the country. It also underlined the deadlock that Libya appears to have fallen into more than two weeks into its upheaval.

Col. Gadhafi’s forces seem unable to bring significant strength to dislodge rebels from the territory they hold. But the opposition does not have the capability to go on the offense against Col. Gadhafi’s strongholds in the west, including the capital, Tripoli.

Col. Gadhafi’s regime has unleashed the bloodiest crackdown of any Arab nation to the wave of anti-government protests in the region. Hundreds are known to have been killed, and some estimates top 1,000.

In the Netherlands, the top prosecutor at the Hague-based International Criminal Court said Thursday he would investigate Col. Gadhafi and his inner circle, including some of his sons, for possible crimes against humanity in the violent crackdown on anti-government protesters.

Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said Col. Gadhafi and several commanders and regime officials had formal or de facto control over forces that attacked protesters. There will be “no impunity in Libya,” he vowed.

Besides Col. Gadhafi, Mr. Moreno-Ocampo specified the titles of seven others to be investigated, including the commander of the 32nd Battalion, the head of Col. Gadhafi’s personal security, the national security adviser and several other security chiefs. Col. Gadhafi’s son Khamis commands the elite 32nd Battalion, and another son, Muatassim, is the national security adviser.

Opposition leaders are pleading for foreign powers to launch airstrikes to help them oust Col. Gadhafi as the United States moves military forces closer to Libyan shores to put military muscle behind Washington’s calls for Col. 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 M. Gates said would first require attacking Col. 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,” Mr. Gates told lawmakers. He added that the operation would require more warplanes than are on a single U.S. aircraft carrier.

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