Gadhafi forces battle rebels as 37 killed in Libya

Anti-Gadhafi protesters leave the Muradagha mosque to demonstrate after Friday prayers in the Tajoura district of eastern Tripoli, Libya, Friday, March 4, 2011. Forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi fired tear gas at protesters who marched in Tripoli on Friday, calling for the Libyan leader's ouster in defiance of a fierce crackdown by regime supporters that has spread fear in the capital. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)Anti-Gadhafi protesters leave the Muradagha mosque to demonstrate after Friday prayers in the Tajoura district of eastern Tripoli, Libya, Friday, March 4, 2011. Forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi fired tear gas at protesters who marched in Tripoli on Friday, calling for the Libyan leader’s ouster in defiance of a fierce crackdown by regime supporters that has spread fear in the capital. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
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TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Moammar Gadhafi’s regime struck back at its opponents Friday, launching a powerful attack on the closest opposition-held city to Tripoli and firing tear gas and live ammunition to smother new protests in the capital. At least 37 people died in fighting and in an explosion at an ammunitions depot in Libya’s rebellious east.

The bloodshed signaled an escalation in efforts by both sides to break the deadlock that has gripped Libya’s 18-day-old upheaval. The rebellion has broken away the entire eastern half of the country from Col. Gadhafi’s control and has swept over several cities in the west close to the capital.

So far, Col. Gadhafi has had little success in taking back territory, with several rebel cities repelling assaults in the past weeks. But the opposition forces have seemed unable to go on the offensive to march on areas still under government control. Meanwhile, in Tripoli — Col. Gadhafi’s most important bastion — his loyalists have waged a campaign of terror to ensure that protesters do not rise up in significant numbers.

Friday’s assault on the rebel city of Zawiya, about 30 miles west of Tripoli, appeared to be the strongest yet by Col. Gadhafi’s forces after repeated earlier forays against it were beaten back.

In the morning, troops from the elite Khamis Brigade — named after the son of Col. Gadhafi who commands it — bombarded the city’s western edges with mortars, heavy machine guns, tanks and anti-aircraft weapons, several residents said. By the evening, they had also opened a front on the eastern side. Armed Zawiya citizens backed by allied army units were fighting back.

The commander of the rebel forces — Col. Hussein Darbouk — was shot to death by fire from an anti-aircraft gun, said Alaa al-Zawi, an activist in the city. Col. Darbouk was a colonel in Col. Gadhafi’s army who defected along with other army troops in Zawiya early on in the uprising.

A witness who was at Zawiya’s hospital said at least 18 people in the city were killed and 120 wounded. Libyan state TV claimed the attackers had retaken the city. But Mr. al-Zawi, the witness and other residents said it remained in opposition hands, with skirmishes continuing after nightfall.

They and other witnesses and residents around the country spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

The day’s other fighting took place at Ras Lanouf, a small oil port 380 miles east of Tripoli, just outside the long swath of eastern Libya controlled by the opposition.

Rebels attacked Ras Lanouf on Friday afternoon, feeling flush with victory after repelling Gadhafi forces who attacked them days earlier at Brega, a larger oil facility just to the east. Fighters armed with Kalashnikovs and heavy machine guns were seen streaming in pickup trucks and other vehicles from Brega heading in the direction of Ras Lanouf.

They battled with about 3,000 pro-Gadhafi troops, mainly around the facility’s airstrip, said a resident of the town. She reported heavy explosions starting around 4 p.m. As night fell, the explosions eased, she said, but it was not clear who was in control of the complex, which includes a port and storage facilities for crude coming from fields in the deserts to the south.

At least two dead and 16 wounded were taken to the hospital at nearby Ajdabiya, although that did not include the toll from other hospitals in the area.

An Ajdabiya resident Abdel-Bari Zwei claimed opposition forces had taken over the Ras Lanouf air strip, oil facility and a housing unit, capturing two pro-Gadhafi officers. He said 11 rebels were killed in the fighting and the pro-Gadhafi forces had begun withdrawing toward the coastal city of Sirte. The report could not immediately be confirmed.

To the northeast, hospital officials said at least 17 people were killed in an explosion at an ammunition storage facility at a military base in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

Dr. Habib al-Obeidi in Benghazi’s al-Jalaa hospital says the blast also hit a residential area. Witnesses on the scene, about 20 miles from downtown, said ambulances were rushing to the area and secondary explosions caused two fire trucks to blow up.

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