8:04am

Sun March 6, 2011
Middle East

Rebels Stalled By Fierce Gadhafi Counteroffensive

Libyan helicopter gunships fired on a rebel force advancing west toward the capital, Tripoli, along the country's Mediterranean coastline Sunday, and forces loyal to leader Moammar Gadhafi fought intense ground battles with the rival fighters.

The opposition force 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 Lanuf. 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 Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, which is about 30 miles to the west. Associated Press reporters at the scene said Gadhafi loyalists retook Bin Jawad, about 110 miles east of Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, which could prove to be a decisive battleground.

In the city of Ras Lanuf, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports the mood in the city has gone from jubilation to determination.

"We've seen ambulances streaming from the front," Garcia-Navarro said. "I've seen injured men with blood dripping down the front of them."

The rebels told Garcia-Navarro that locals joined pro-Gadhafi forces to ambush them in the town of Bin Jawad. "There are very strong clashes taking place with Gadhafi forces there," she said. "The mood here right now is that they're not even sure that they can keep Ras Lanuf."

AP 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 Lanuf and destroyed three hangars and a small building. Regime forces shelled rebel positions at Ras Lanuf with rockets and artillery. Ambulances sped toward the town and rebels moved trucks carrying multi-rocket launchers toward the front lines.

Garcia-Navarro said it's a setback for rebels who had intended to push toward Sirte, a Gadhafi stronghold. Now the rebel army is faced with what to do next.

"This is a disparate group of people," Garcia-Navarro said. "They don't seem to have any central command; they're using weapons they've looted from military bases."

There's a feeling among the rebels that if they do not win this fight, Gadhafi will use all means at his disposal to crush them, Garcia-Navarro reported. "They feel that this is a fight to the very death."

An Uprising Turning To Civil War

The Libyan uprising that began 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 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 in the rebel-held city of Zawiya, west of Tripoli — where bloody street battles were reported over the weekend.

The U.S. has moved military forces closer to Libya's shores to put military muscle behind its demand for 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 U.N. has imposed sanctions, and Libya's oil production has been crippled by the unrest. The turmoil has caused oil prices to spike on international markets.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have died in the violence with tight restrictions on media making it near impossible to get an accurate tally.

The rebels headquartered in the main eastern city of Benghazi have set up an interim governing council that is urging international airstrikes on Gadhafi's strongholds and forces.

Gunfire In Tripoli

In Tripoli, the city of 2 million that is most firmly in 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 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 fortress-like barracks. Gadhafi's whereabouts were unknown.

Libyan authorities tried to explain the unusually heavy gunfire by saying it was a celebration of the regime taking back Ras Lanuf near the rebel-held east and the city of Misrata close to Tripoli.

Despite those claims, AP reporters saw ongoing battles still in progress in Ras Lanuf hours after the claim of victory; residents of Misrata said the city remained in opposition hands.

After the gunfire eased in the early morning, thousands of Gadhafi's supporters poured into Tripoli's central square for a rally, waving green flags, firing guns in the air, and holding up banners in support of the regime. Hundreds drove past Gadhafi's residence, waving flags and cheering. Armed men in plainclothes were standing at the gates, also shooting in the air.

Key Cities Become Battlegrounds

Over the weekend, residents of Zawiya, a city of some 200,000 people that is 30 miles west of Tripoli, said pro-Gadhafi forces stormed in to try to break the control of rebels over the area. Zawiya was the city closest to the capital held by the opposition.

Members of the elite Khamis Brigade, named for one of Gadhafi's sons who commands it, had been massed outside Zawiya for days. Residents said Saturday that a large number of tanks rolled into the city and many were killed and wounded in the counteroffensive.

Libya's Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Qaid claimed on Saturday that "99 percent" of Zawiya is under government control. The AP made repeated attempts to reach Zawiya residents by phone on Sunday, but the phones were turned off.

In rebel-held Misrata, residents said pro-Gadhafi forces attacked the city 120 miles east of Tripoli late Sunday morning, shelling the downtown area with mortars and tank artillery.

They said the shelling began at 11:30 a.m. and that the rebels were fighting back with rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns.

A doctor reached by the AP in the city's main hospital said the facility's stores caught fire from the shelling and that fire fighters were now 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.

British Special Forces Reported Captured

U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague said Sunday that a small British diplomatic team left Libya after running into a problem while on a mission to try to talk to rebels in the eastern part of the country

The Foreign Office declined to comment on reports earlier in the day the team included special forces soldiers who had been detained in Benghazi by opponents of Gadhafi's regime.

"The team went to Libya to initiate contacts with the opposition," Hague said in a statement. "They experienced difficulties, which have now been satisfactorily resolved."

Earlier, Hague echoed Defense Minister Liam Fox in telling the BBC it would be inappropriate to comment on an article in Britain's Sunday Times newspaper that soldiers were captured by rebel forces when a secret mission to put British diplomats in touch with leading opponents of Libya's embattled leader went awry.

When pressed on whether the U.K. diplomatic team was in danger, Fox reiterated that the government is in contact with the diplomatic team.

"It is a very difficult situation to be able to understand in detail," he said. "There are a number of different opposition groups to Col. Gadhafi in Libya who do seem relatively disparate."

The Sunday Times reported that up to eight special forces soldiers, armed but in plain clothes, were captured while escorting a junior British diplomat through rebel-held territory in eastern Libya.

The special forces intervention angered Libyan opposition figures who ordered the soldiers to be locked up on a military base, the newspaper reported. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.