RAS LANOUF, Libya — Libyan helicopter gunships fired on a rebel force advancing west toward Tripoli, the capital, along the country’s Mediterranean coastline Sunday, as forces loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi fought intense ground battles with the rival fighters.
The opposition forces pushed out of the rebel-held eastern half of Libya late last week for the first time and have been cutting a path west toward Tripoli. On the way, they secured control of two important oil ports at Brega and Ras Lanouf, and by Sunday the rebels were advancing farther west when they were hit by the helicopter fire and confrontations with ground forces.
Fierce ground battles were raging around the front line between two towns about 30 miles apart, Ras Lanouf and Bin Jawad to the west. Associated Press reporters at the scene said Gadhafi loyalists retook Bin Jawad, about 110 miles east of Col. Gadhafi’s hometown and stronghold of Sirte, which could prove to be a decisive battleground.
The reporters witnessed air attacks by helicopters on the rebel forces and heavy fighting on the ground. A warplane also attacked a small military base at Ras Lanouf and destroyed three hangars and a small building. Regime forces shelled rebel positions at Ras Lanouf with rockets and artillery. Ambulances sped toward the town, and rebels moved trucks carrying multirocket launchers toward the front lines.
In Tripoli, the city of 2 million that is most firmly in Col. Gadhafi’s grip, residents awoke before dawn to the crackle of unusually heavy and sustained gunfire that lasted for at least two hours. Some of the gunfire was heard around the sprawling Bab al-Aziziya military camp where Col. Gadhafi lives, giving rise to speculation that there may have been some sort of internal fighting within the forces defending the Libyan leader inside his fortresslike barracks. Col. Gadhafi’s whereabouts were unknown.
In rebel-held Misrata, residents said pro-Gadhafi forces attacked the city, 120 miles east of Tripoli, late morning on Sunday, shelling the downtown area with mortars and tank artillery.
They said that the shelling began at 11:30 and that the rebels were fighting back with rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns.
A doctor reached by the Associated Press in the city’s main hospital said the facility’s stores caught fire from the shelling and that firefighters were trying to put out the blaze.
The residents said the shelling was almost over by early afternoon, but they had no reports on casualties or damage.
The residents and the doctor spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals.
The Libyan uprising that began on Feb. 15, inspired by rebellions in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, has been sliding toward a civil war that could be prolonged, with rebels backed by mutinous army units and arms seized from storehouses going on the offensive to try to topple Col. Gadhafi’s 41-year-old regime. At the same time, pro-Gadhafi forces have tried to conduct counteroffensives to retake the oil port of Brega and the rebel-held city of Zawiya, west of Tripoli — where bloody street battles were reported over the weekend.
The United States has moved military forces closer to Libya‘s shores to put military muscle behind its demand for Col. Gadhafi to step down immediately. But Washington has expressed wariness about talk of imposing a “no-fly” zone over the North African nation to prevent the Libyan leader from using his warplanes to attack the population.
At the same time, the United Nations has imposed sanctions, and Libya‘s oil production has been seriously crippled by the unrest. The turmoil has caused oil prices to spike on international markets.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have died in the violence. Tight restrictions on media have made getting an accurate count nearly impossible.
The rebels headquartered in the main eastern city of Benghazi have set up an interim governing council that is urging international airstrikes on Col. Gadhafi’s strongholds and forces.