Libyan Jets Bomb Eastern Towns, But Rebels Hold On

  • Libyan rebels watch smoke rising from an oil pipe just outside the town of Ras Lanuf, where many anti-regime fighters retreated after artillery and airstrikes from government troops Wednesday.
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    Libyan rebels watch smoke rising from an oil pipe just outside the town of Ras Lanuf, where many anti-regime fighters retreated after artillery and airstrikes from government troops Wednesday.
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  • Refugees who fled Libya bathe in the Choucha refugee camp, near the Tunisian border town of Ras Jdir on Tuesday. The Red Cross and the United Arab Emirates plan to build two new camps on Tunisia's border. An estimated 100,000 mainly foreign migrants have crossed from Libya into Tunisia since Feb. 20, Tunisian officials said.
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    Refugees who fled Libya bathe in the Choucha refugee camp, near the Tunisian border town of Ras Jdir on Tuesday. The Red Cross and the United Arab Emirates plan to build two new camps on Tunisia's border. An estimated 100,000 mainly foreign migrants have crossed from Libya into Tunisia since Feb. 20, Tunisian officials said.
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  • An injured rebel fighter is brought to a hospital in Ras Lanuf on Tuesday.
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    An injured rebel fighter is brought to a hospital in Ras Lanuf on Tuesday.
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  • Rebel fighters run for cover as an air force jet drops a bomb on the outskirts of the oil-rich town of Ras Lanuf on Tuesday.
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    Rebel fighters run for cover as an air force jet drops a bomb on the outskirts of the oil-rich town of Ras Lanuf on Tuesday.
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  • Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi arrives at a hotel to give television interviews in Tripoli on Tuesday.
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    Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi arrives at a hotel to give television interviews in Tripoli on Tuesday.
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  • Volunteers work on anti-Gadhafi banners at the newly set-up media center in Benghazi, Libya, on Monday. Libyan activists provide technical support and documents to journalists.
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    Volunteers work on anti-Gadhafi banners at the newly set-up media center in Benghazi, Libya, on Monday. Libyan activists provide technical support and documents to journalists.
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  • A mourner kneels over the grave of a relative recently killed in a battle between rebel fighters and forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for control over the town of Bin Jawad, Libya, on Monday.
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    A mourner kneels over the grave of a relative recently killed in a battle between rebel fighters and forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi for control over the town of Bin Jawad, Libya, on Monday.
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  • Rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an air force fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf, Libya.
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    Rebel fighters take cover as a bomb dropped by an air force fighter jet explodes near a checkpoint on the outskirts of the oil town of Ras Lanuf, Libya.
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  • A rebel fighter shouts from his anti-aircraft machine gun position as he sees a fighter jet flying over at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf on Sunday.
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    A rebel fighter shouts from his anti-aircraft machine gun position as he sees a fighter jet flying over at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf on Sunday.
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  • Thousands of pro-Gadahfi Libyans gather in Tripoli's Green Square on Sunday to celebrate victories over rebel forces.
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    Thousands of pro-Gadahfi Libyans gather in Tripoli's Green Square on Sunday to celebrate victories over rebel forces.
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  • Moroccan expatriates arrive Sunday in the northern Moroccan port of Tangiers on a boat from the rebel-held city of Benghazi, Libya. Some 4,000 expats were repatriated by Moroccan authorities.
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    Moroccan expatriates arrive Sunday in the northern Moroccan port of Tangiers on a boat from the rebel-held city of Benghazi, Libya. Some 4,000 expats were repatriated by Moroccan authorities.
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  • A rebel fighter stands at a checkpoint Saturday in Ras Lanuf, where up to 10 people were killed and more than 20 wounded in clashes between opposition forces and Gadhafi loyalists.
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    A rebel fighter stands at a checkpoint Saturday in Ras Lanuf, where up to 10 people were killed and more than 20 wounded in clashes between opposition forces and Gadhafi loyalists.
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  • Libyan rebels gather for prayer on March 4. Loyalist forces have launched a fresh air strike on opposition territory in the east, while pumped-up opposition fighters pushed forward the frontline against Moammar Gadhafi's regime.
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    Libyan rebels gather for prayer on March 4. Loyalist forces have launched a fresh air strike on opposition territory in the east, while pumped-up opposition fighters pushed forward the frontline against Moammar Gadhafi's regime.
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  • A Libyan rebel fighter fires his rifle in the air at Ajdabiya's west gate on Friday.
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    A Libyan rebel fighter fires his rifle in the air at Ajdabiya's west gate on Friday.
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  • Thousands of Bangladeshi refugees who fled Libya stand in a miles-long line as they walk to a refugee camp in Tunisia on Friday.
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    Thousands of Bangladeshi refugees who fled Libya stand in a miles-long line as they walk to a refugee camp in Tunisia on Friday.
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  • Trash fires burn at a border area in Tunisia on Thursday, where migrant workers from Libya are living in squalid conditions. Tunisia's situation is quickly turning into a humanitarian emergency as the country is overwhelmed with refugees.
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    Trash fires burn at a border area in Tunisia on Thursday, where migrant workers from Libya are living in squalid conditions. Tunisia's situation is quickly turning into a humanitarian emergency as the country is overwhelmed with refugees.
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  • President Obama said on Thursday that he has authorized the use of U.S. military aircraft to move Egyptian refugees fleeing Libya to Tunisia.
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    President Obama said on Thursday that he has authorized the use of U.S. military aircraft to move Egyptian refugees fleeing Libya to Tunisia.
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  • Libyan rebels in the northeastern city of Ajdabiya celebrate reports that the counterattacks led by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi have failed, on March 2.
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    Libyan rebels in the northeastern city of Ajdabiya celebrate reports that the counterattacks led by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi have failed, on March 2.
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  • Thousands in Libya wait to cross into Tunisia via the Ras Jedir border crossing on Wednesday. The UN refugees agency has made a plea to end the gridlock at the Tunisia border.
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    Thousands in Libya wait to cross into Tunisia via the Ras Jedir border crossing on Wednesday. The UN refugees agency has made a plea to end the gridlock at the Tunisia border.
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  • Gadhafi drives away in an electric golf cart after speaking in Tripoli on Wednesday after addressing supporters and the media.
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    Gadhafi drives away in an electric golf cart after speaking in Tripoli on Wednesday after addressing supporters and the media.
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  • Defected Libyan soldiers stand guard outside an army base in the eastern town of Ajdabiya, Libya, on Tuesday. Eastern cities are free from government control, but fighting continues around the capital Tripoli, controlled by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
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    Defected Libyan soldiers stand guard outside an army base in the eastern town of Ajdabiya, Libya, on Tuesday. Eastern cities are free from government control, but fighting continues around the capital Tripoli, controlled by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
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  • Rebels celebrate Sunday in the streets of Benghazi, no longer under the control of Gadhafi's government.
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    Rebels celebrate Sunday in the streets of Benghazi, no longer under the control of Gadhafi's government.
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  • A Libyan insurgent soldier displays heavy-caliber ammunition, allegedly intended to be used against civilians in Benghazi on Sunday.
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    A Libyan insurgent soldier displays heavy-caliber ammunition, allegedly intended to be used against civilians in Benghazi on Sunday.
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  • Crowds celebrate in Benghazi on Saturday, still demanding Gadhafi's removal from power.
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    Crowds celebrate in Benghazi on Saturday, still demanding Gadhafi's removal from power.
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  • Libyans stomp on a defaced billboard of Gadhafi during a demonstration against his regime in the city of Tobruk on Saturday.
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    Libyans stomp on a defaced billboard of Gadhafi during a demonstration against his regime in the city of Tobruk on Saturday.
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  • A Libyan border guard walks through an empty customs hall on the Libya-Egypt border on Thursday.
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    A Libyan border guard walks through an empty customs hall on the Libya-Egypt border on Thursday.
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Libyan rebels withstood ground and air attacks on the Mediterranean oil port of Brega on Wednesday, blunting a major counteroffensive by forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi in a seesaw battle that lasted much of the day.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro said the port, home to one of the largest oil refineries in Africa, was bombed by Libyan jets.

Map of Libya

"Huge plumes of smoke rose into the air" after the warplanes attacked, Garcia-Navarro reported from Brega. She said it appeared that Gadhafi was "pulling out all the stops" to regain large swaths of opposition-controlled eastern Libya.

The attack began just after dawn, when several hundred pro-Gadhafi forces in trucks and SUVs mounted with machine guns descended on the port, driving out a small opposition contingent and seizing control of the oil facilities, port and airstrip.

When word got out that Brega had fallen back into enemy hands, Garcia-Navarro reported, thousands of young men riding in pickup trucks streamed into town from all over eastern Libya. Gadhafi's military was forced to retreat through sheer force of numbers.

"The dogs have fled," one middle-aged fighter shouted, waving his Kalashnikov over his head in victory after the Gadhafi forces withdrew.

Garcia-Navarro said the rebels were a ragtag group of fighters who didn't necessarily have the skills to use certain weapons, but had the will to fight and willingness to die.

Doctors at a Brega hospital told The Associated Press that at least 10 opposition fighters died and 18 others were wounded in the fighting, their bodies covered with sand thrown up by shells bursting in the dunes.

Screaming Warplanes And Heavy Gunfire

The attack on Brega and an assault on the city of Ajdabiya coincided with a televised speech by Gadhafi in which he said Libya would conduct a "bloody war" if U.S. or NATO forces intervene in the conflict.

Gadhafi warned that "thousands and thousands" of his people could die as a result.

The fighting in the east centered on the oil facilities at Brega, which lies at the western edge of the opposition-controlled territory in the east.

Ahmed Dawas, an opposition fighter at a checkpoint outside Brega, said a large force of pro-Gadhafi fighters in about 50 SUVs descended on the city shortly after sunrise and swept over the oil facility, taking an adjacent airstrip as screaming warplanes struck nearby targets. But later, he said, anti-regime fighters from Brega and Ajdabiya flooded in and took it back.

Rebel fighters carrying automatic weapons sped out of Ajdabiya in pickup trucks toward the oil port 40 miles away to join the fight.

At the same time, Ajdabiya's people geared up to defend their city from attacks by the regime. Garcia-Navarro said there were several bombing attempts on the area, the site of a key weapons depot.

"The weapons depot there is vast. It has about 35 warehouses filled with all sorts of munitions, including surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and other arms. And so it is a very strategically important place for the rebel army and clearly also for pro-Gadhafi forces," she said.

At the gates of the city, hundreds of residents took up positions on the road from Brega, armed with Kalashnikovs and hunting rifles, along with a few rocket-propelled grenade launchers. They set up two large rocket launchers and an anti-aircraft gun in the road.

One rebel military leader, Capt. Faris Zawya, told NPR that forces in Ajdabiya were "still holding the line."

Scores of armed young men also streamed out of Benghazi, which is seen as the capital of "free Libya," to reinforce pro-democracy forces in Brega and Ajdabiya, Garcia-Navarro said.

"They say they are willing to die to maintain their hold of eastern Libya," she said. "And not only their hold of eastern Libya — they say that once they have defended this place, they will push out and try and overthrow Moammar Gadhafi once and for all."

A Libyan rebel soldier flashes the "V for victory" sign as he prepares for battle in the eastern city of Ajdabiya on Wednesday.

hide captionA Libyan rebel soldier flashes the "V for victory" sign as he prepares for battle in the eastern city of Ajdabiya on Wednesday.

Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

'Terrorist Elements Are Wreaking Havoc'

From his stronghold in the capital, Tripoli, Gadhafi reiterated accusations that al-Qaida operatives backed by lies propagated by international media were responsible for the chaos.

"The terrorist elements are wreaking havoc, killing men, raping women and taking refuge within mosques," he said in the speech translated by Al-Jazeera English. "If one person is killed, it can be reported [by the media] as 1,000."

Gadhafi also claimed that high-ranking army officers who defected to the opposition had in fact been "forced at gunpoint" to switch sides. He repeatedly said the forces allied against him were armed and that reports of peaceful demonstrations were "a complete lie."

"These groups are in possession of arms and falsely reported to the outside world through their own cell phones that they are marching peacefully," he said. "On the ground, you can see that's not true."

When Gadhafi repeated the refrain that he will "fight to the last drop of blood," some in the audience in Tripoli stood up to chant and wave the green flag that has marked most of his time in power.

But in Benghazi, the first city to fall to the opposition, Al-Jazeera broadcast footage of people holding hand-lettered signs in English reading "Gadhafi is lying now" and "The liar is talking." Protesters waved the pre-Gadhafi red, black and green flag and flashed "V for victory" signs.

The Libyan leader challenged the United Nations to dispatch fact-finding missions to confirm that "we did not fire one bullet" against the demonstrators.

Within hours of the speech, prosecutors at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, announced that there is enough evidence of alleged crimes against humanity to warrant a full investigation of the actions by Gadhafi's regime.

The amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge traveled through the Suez Canal in Ismailia, Egypt, on Wednesday on its way to the Mediterranean. i i

hide captionThe amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge traveled through the Suez Canal in Ismailia, Egypt, on Wednesday on its way to the Mediterranean.

AP
The amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge traveled through the Suez Canal in Ismailia, Egypt, on Wednesday on its way to the Mediterranean.

The amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge traveled through the Suez Canal in Ismailia, Egypt, on Wednesday on its way to the Mediterranean.

AP

A No-Fly Zone?

People in the eastern city of Tobruk, near the border with Egypt, told NPR that they were expecting the regime's counteroffensive given Gadhafi's commitment to cling to power. They said they are ready to join the fight — and they're equally adamant that they will not accept the presence of foreign troops in their country.

But members of the opposition said they want the international community to impose a no-fly zone over Libya — something that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said is under active consideration.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, echoing remarks made Tuesday by the head of U.S. Central Command, said that while a no-fly zone could be established, it would be a serious undertaking that "begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defense.

"Then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down," Gates told a House committee.

On Tuesday, Gates downplayed the prospect of U.S. military intervention during a Pentagon news conference. He did not, however, rule out options such as providing air cover for Libyan rebels.

"We also have to think about, frankly, the use of the U.S. military in another country in the Middle East," he said, referring to the long war in Iraq and its backlash in the Arab world. "So I think we're sensitive about all of these things, but we will provide the president with a full range of options."

Gates said he has ordered two Navy amphibious warships into the Mediterranean Sea, along with an extra 400 Marines, in case they are needed to evacuate civilians or provide humanitarian relief.

NATO has said establishing a no-fly zone over Libya would require a clear mandate from the U.N. Security Council. This is unlikely because Russia, which has veto power in the council, has already rejected the idea.

Still, some diplomats told the AP on Wednesday that NATO countries are drawing up contingency plans modeled on the no-fly zones over the Balkans in the 1990s in case the international community decides to impose an air embargo over the North African nation.

The diplomats, who asked that they not be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, cited NATO's aerial offensive against Yugoslavia in 1999 — which did not have the U.N. Security Council mandate — in response to the crackdown on ethnic Albanian nationalists in Kosovo. The onslaught ended after 78 days with Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic agreeing to withdraw his forces from Kosovo.

"Very clearly there are such discussions going on, and contingency plans are being worked on, but there is no decision yet," said a senior EU official who also declined to be identified.

Airlift Operation Launched To Aid Those Fleeing Libya

Meanwhile, Britain, France and the 57 Islamic nations composing the Organization of the Islamic Conference joined the United Nations in launching their own airlift operations Wednesday.

With more than 140,000 people fleeing Libya into Egypt and Tunisia, British Prime Minister David Cameron said his nation had launched an airlift to help Egyptians who are stranded at the border.

"These people shouldn't be kept in transit camps," Cameron said. The Egyptians were to be flown back to their country, with the first flight scheduled for later Wednesday.

U.N. World Food Program Director Josette Sheeran said she was "surrounded by tens of thousands of people fleeing violence" during a visit to the Libya-Tunisia border.

Sheeran pledged $38 million for an emergency operation to provide food assistance to 2.7 million people in Libya, Egypt and Tunisia in partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"As I visited the border area, the first airlift of 80 metric tons of high energy biscuits, flown in by WFP on Monday, were being distributed at the crossing points," she said in a statement.

NPR's David Greene, reporting from Tunisia, said semitrailer trucks full of aid items such as pasta, bananas and dates, as well as diapers, were being dispatched for border camps where thousands of refugees are being temporarily housed.

"What people here say is that there is no one organization that is handling this — it's mostly volunteers," Greene said.

Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced Wednesday that he is putting together a proposal for a U.S. aid package to promote democracy and economic transformation in the Arab world, although he did not offer a dollar figure.

"Events this powerful demand a response of equal power," Kerry said at a committee hearing. "Our commitment now to the ordinary people who are risking their lives to win human rights and democracy will be remembered for generations in the Arab world. We have to get this moment right."

With reporting from NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Benghazi and Nishant Dahiya in Tobruk, Libya; and David Greene in Tunisia. This story also contains material from The Associated Press.

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