7:22am

Sat March 12, 2011
Africa

Libyan Rebels Lose Oil Port, Vow To Regroup

Moammar Gadhafi's regime drove out pockets of rebel fighters who were keeping a tenuous hold around oil facilities in a key port city, showing growing strength Saturday after days of relentless shelling against protesters turned rebels.

Gen. Abdel-Fattah Younis, who was the country's interior minister before he defected to the rebel side, acknowledged Saturday that Gadhafi's forces now control both the town and the oil refinery in Ras Lanuf, 380 miles southeast of the capital, Tripoli. It was the latest setback for opposition forces who just a week ago held the entire eastern half of the country and were charging toward the capital.

But Younis vowed a comeback, saying, "We should be back today or at the latest tomorrow."

The assault on Ras Lanuf in recent days was a sign the Gadhafi camp had regrouped after it first seemed to reel in confusion for the much of the uprising that began Feb. 15. With Gadhafi's men on the march against rebels, the international community appeared in disarray over how to stop the bloodshed.

Arab foreign ministers were meeting in Egypt on Saturday to discuss a no-fly zone over Libya to protect the civilian population from the Gadhafi regime's fighter jets. But the Arab League's member states are divided over how to deal with the Libyan crisis, signaling it would be a tough debate.

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said Saturday that she would go to Cairo to meet with leaders of the Arab League to discuss the situation in Libya.

Ashton said she would fly to Cairo on Sunday and discuss a "collaborative approach" with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa on Libya and the rest of the region, and would also meet with Egypt's prime minister-designate, Essam Sharaf, and with Nabil Elaraby, the nominee for foreign minister.

In Washington, President Obama said a no-fly zone remains a possibility as "we are slowly tightening the noose" around Gadhafi, but he stopped short of moving toward military action.

He cited actions already taken, including getting American citizens and embassy workers out of the country, slapping tough United Nations sanctions on Libya and seizing $30 billion in Gadhafi's assets.

The European Union, meanwhile, said a no-fly zone would need diplomatic backing from international organizations like the Arab League.

Rebel leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, the head of the opposition's interim governing council, pleaded Saturday with the international community to approve a no-fly zone over Libya. Abdul-Jalil also expressed disappointment over the failure to act by the United States and other Western countries.

Meanwhile, eovernment forces also recaptured the strategic town of Zawiya, near Tripoli, on Friday. Zawiya's main square, which had been a key center of resistance to the west of the capital, bore the scars of battle and the streets were lined with tanks as loyalists waving green flags rallied amid a heavy presence of uniformed pro-Gadhafi troops and snipers. There was talk of rebel bodies having been bulldozed away, and the dome and minaret of the nearby mosque were demolished.

The capture of Zawiya, a coastal city of about 200,000 people that is located near an oil port and refineries, seals off a corridor around the capital and solidifies the government's control over the western third of the country to the border with Tunisia. The government still faced a rebel challenge in Misrata, Libya's third-largest city, 125 miles southeast of Tripoli.

The government had claimed victory in Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli, on Wednesday, but the rebels who are seeking to oust Gadhafi said fighting was ongoing.

An Associated Press reporter, who was taken by the government with other journalists into the city on Friday, said the city was clearly in government control, with Libyan soldiers manning tanks and trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns.

Grim evidence of battle was everywhere. A makeshift clinic that had been set up inside the mosque to treat the injured was destroyed and the floor was covered with rubble, shoes and glass while the roof was punctured with a large hole where the dome had been.

The facades of buildings, including banks and hotels overlooking Martyrs' Square, were devastated, the streets were strewn with shattered glass and several palm trees had been burned or uprooted.

A 43-year-old government employee said the shelling of the city started on Friday and was nonstop until Wednesday, the day the government claimed victory.

"Many people were killed on Friday. The youth were marching in the square," he said. "I don't know whom to blame — the leader, the son of the leader, the government or the rebels. It was peaceful. I don't know why this happened. I never imagined that I would see Zawiya, my hometown, like this."

He said at least 24 of the protesters had been buried in the square but the pro-Gadhafi forces had used bulldozers to remove their bodies. The claim couldn't be independently verified, although the area was flattened.

Libya's Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Qaid said the death toll was 14, including rebels and army soldiers.

Anti-Gadhafi graffiti that had covered walls during a previous visit by the AP also had been painted over. Green flags and pictures of Gadhafi were wrapped around some buildings.

Zawiya's fall to the opposition about a week into the uprising illustrated the initial, blazing progress of the movement that started with protests in the east and escalated into an armed rebellion. But Gadhafi has seized the momentum, battering opponents with airstrikes and artillery fire. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.