- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2011

BREGA, Libya | Rebel forces routed troops loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi in a fierce battle over an oil port Wednesday, scrambling over the dunes of a Mediterranean beach through shelling and an airstrike to corner their attackers.

While they thwarted the regime’s first counteroffensive in eastern Libya, opposition leaders still pleaded for outside airstrikes to help them oust the longtime dictator.

The attack on Brega, a strategic oil facility 460 miles east of Col. Gadhafi’s stronghold in Tripoli, illustrated the deep difficulties the Libyan leader’s armed forces — an array of militiamen, mercenaries and military units — have had in rolling back the uprising that has swept over the entire eastern half of Libya since Feb. 15.

In the capital, Tripoli, Col. Gadhafi warned against U.S. or other Western intervention, vowing to turn Libya into “another Vietnam” and saying any foreign troops coming into his country “will be entering hell and they will drown in blood.”

At least 10 anti-Gadhafi fighters were killed and 18 wounded in the battle for Brega, which the opposition has held since last week.

Citizen militias flowed in from a nearby city and from the opposition stronghold of Benghazi hours away to reinforce the defense, finally repelling the regime loyalists.

The attack began just after dawn, when several hundred pro-Gadhafi forces in 50 trucks and sport utility vehicles mounted with machine guns descended on the port, driving out a small opposition contingent and seizing control of the oil facilities, port and airstrip. By afternoon, they had lost it all and had retreated to a university campus five miles away.

Brega is the second-largest petroleum facility in Libya. Amid the recent turmoil, exports from its ports have all but stopped, with no ships coming to load up with crude and natural gas.

Crude production in the southeastern oil fields that feed into the facility has been scaled back because storage facilities at Brega were filling up. General manager Fathi Eissa said last week that the facility has had to scale back production from 90,000 barrels a day to 11,000.

The chaos in Libya — which has Africa’s largest proven oil reserves — has sparked a major spike in world oil prices on worries that the unrest will spread.

Crude production has dropped overall from 1.6 million barrels per day, nearly 2 percent of world consumption, to as little as 600,000 barrels per day. On Wednesday, oil prices rose to near $102 per barrel, prices not seen since September 2008.

The turmoil also has sparked an exodus of 180,000 people — mostly foreign workers in Libya — who have fled to the borders, U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told the Associated Press.

More than 77,000 have crossed into Egypt, and a similar number into Tunisia — with about 30,000 more waiting at that western border.



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