Libyan warplanes strike rebels at oil port

A Libyan anti-government rebel lies by the roadside at an advance checkpoint between the town of Ras Lanouf and Bin-Jawad, eastern Libya, Monday, March 7, 2011. An air strike hit Ras Lanouf, a key oil port held by the rebels, on Monday but there were no casualties. A day earlier, a heavy assault by pro-regime forces stalled the rebel advance. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)A Libyan anti-government rebel lies by the roadside at an advance checkpoint between the town of Ras Lanouf and Bin-Jawad, eastern Libya, Monday, March 7, 2011. An air strike hit Ras Lanouf, a key oil port held by the rebels, on Monday but there were no casualties. A day earlier, a heavy assault by pro-regime forces stalled the rebel advance. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
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RAS LANOUF, Libya (AP) — Libyan warplanes launched multiple air strikes Monday on opposition fighters regrouping at an oil port on the Mediterranean coast, the second day of a harsh government counteroffensive to thwart a rebel advance toward Moammar Gadhafi’s stronghold in the capital Tripoli.

President Obama said the U.S. and its NATO allies are still considering a military response to the violence and Britain and France were drafting a U.N. resolution that would establish a no-fly zone.

The anti-government forces trying to oust Col. Gadhafi say they will be outgunned if the regime continues to unleash its air power on them and are pleading for the international community to impose a no-fly zone to protect them from more strikes. However, they oppose foreign troops on the ground.

“We don’t want a foreign military intervention, but we do want a no-fly zone, said rebel fighter Ali Suleiman. “We are all waiting for one,” he added. The rebels can take on “the rockets and the tanks, but not Gadhafi’s air force” he said.

The government has managed to halt for now a rebel advance that began last week when fighters ventured beyond the opposition-controlled eastern half of the country.

The rebels are now struggling to maintain supply lines for weapons, ammunition and food, with many living off junk food, cookies and cans of tuna. They are waiting for rocket launchers, tanks and other heavy weapons to arrive with reinforcements from their headquarters in the eastern city of Benghazi.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has moved military forces closer to its shores to back up its demand that Col. Gadhafi step down. But enforcing a no-fly zone could take weeks to organize, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has noted that it must be preceded by a military operation to take out Libya’s air defenses. British Foreign Minister William Hague said Sunday that a no-fly zone over Libya is still in an early stage of planning and ruled out the use of ground forces.

Mr. Obama said the U.S. will stand with the Libyan people as they face “unacceptable” violence. He said he has authorized millions of dollars in humanitarian aid. He also sent a strong message to Col. Gadhafi, saying he and his supporters will be held responsible for the violence there.

Mr. Hague told the House of Commons Monday that Britain is “working closely with partners on a contingency basis on elements of a resolution on a no-fly zone.” A British diplomat at the U.N. stressed that the draft resolution is being prepared in case it is needed but no decision has been made to introduce it at the Security Council. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because the draft has not been made public.

Libya appears to be sliding toward a civil war that could drag out for weeks, or even months, as rebels try to oust Col. Gadhafi after 41 years. Resorting to heavy use of air attacks signaled the regime’s concern that it needed to check the advance of the rebel force toward Sirte — Col. Gadhafi’s hometown and a bastion of support for the longtime leader.

Anti-Gadhafi forces would get a massive morale boost if they can blast through Sirte, a major obstacle on the march toward Tripoli.

Libya’s main population centers lie along the country’s main east-west highway on the Mediterranean coast and the struggle for control of the country is being waged between the government and the rebels trying to push the front line westward toward the capital.

A force estimated at 500 to 1,000 fighters was pushing steadily down the highway toward Tripoli when it was driven out of the town of Bin Jawwad, 375 east of the capital, on Sunday by pro-Gadhafi forces using helicopter gunships, artillery and rockets. The fighting killed at least eight people and wounded 59, according to medical officials.

The rebels regrouped about 40 miles to the east in Ras Lanouf, where MiG fighters circled over rebel positions Monday before launching airstrikes behind their front lines in the morning and afternoon.

In and around Bin Jawwad, pro-regime forces were running patrols Monday and there were minor reports of skirmishes with rebels on the outskirts.

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