Libyan rebels fly a flag from the days before Gadhafi rule as they celebrate the capture of Ras Lanuf in eastern Libya on Saturday.
Libyan rebels fly a flag from the days before Gadhafi rule as they celebrate the capture of Ras Lanuf in eastern Libya on Saturday. Kevin Frayer/AP
Government forces in tanks rolled into the opposition-held city closest to Tripoli after blasting it with artillery and mortar fire, while rebels captured a key oil port and pushed toward Moammar Gadhafi's hometown Saturday in a bloody seesaw battle for control of Libya.
With the Gadhafi regime's tanks prowling the center of the city of Zawiya, west of Tripoli, residents ferried the wounded in private cars to a makeshift clinic in a mosque, fearing that any injured taken to the military-controlled hospital would "be killed for sure," one rebel said after nightfall.
The rival successes — by Gadhafi's forces in entering resistant Zawiya, and by the rebels in taking over the port of Ras Lanuf — signaled an increasingly long and violent battle that could last weeks or months and veered the country ever closer to civil war.
Rebels in the east advanced from their eastern stronghold toward Sirte, setting the stage for fierce fighting with pro-Gadhafi forces who hold sway in the tribal area.
Western leaders focused on humanitarian aid instead of military intervention, and the Italian naval vessel Libra left from Catania, Sicily, for the rebel-held port of Benghazi in eastern Libya, with 25 tons of emergency aid, including milk, rice, blankets, emergency generators, water purifying devices and tents. It is due to arrive early Monday.
The crisis in Libya has distinguished itself from the other uprisings sweeping the Arab world, with Gadhafi unleashing a violent crackdown against his political opponents, who themselves have taken up arms in their attempt to remove him from office after ruling the country for more than 41 years. Hundreds have been killed.
Gadhafi has drawn international condemnation for his actions. President Barack Obama has insisted that Gadhafi must leave and said Washington was considering a full range of options, including the imposition of a "no-fly" zone over Libya.
Near Tripoli, Gadhafi Forces Tighten Grip
Saturday's assault on Zawiya, a city of some 200,000 people just 30 miles west of Tripoli, began with a surprise dawn attack by pro-Gadhafi forces firing mortar shells and machine guns.
Witnesses who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone with the rattle of gunfire and explosions in the background said the shelling damaged government buildings and homes. The fighting sparked several fires, sending a cloud of heavy black smoke over the city, and witnesses said snipers were shooting at anybody in sight, including residents who ventured onto balconies.
Initially, the rebels retreated to positions deeper in the city before they launched a counteroffensive in which they regained some of the lost territory, according to three residents and activists, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
By midafternoon, the rebels had reoccupied central Martyrs' Square while the pro-regime forces regrouped on the city's fringes, sealing off the city's entry and exit routes, the witnesses said.
"We will fight them on the streets and will never give up so long as Gadhafi is still in power," said one of the rebels, who also declined to be identified.
Pro-Gadhafi forces on foot and firing artillery, mortars and other heavy weapons launched a new attack on Zawiya in late afternoon from the south and west, two other witnesses said by telephone.
The government claimed that "99 percent" of Zawiya was under its control.
"The situation in Zawiya is quiet and peaceful right now," deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Qaid told reporters Saturday in Tripoli. "We hope by tomorrow morning life will be back to normal."
Rebels Take Oil Port
The opposition fared better elsewhere, capturing the key oil port of Ras Lanuf on Friday night, a huge military victory in a potentially long and arduous westward march from the east toward Tripoli.
"A group of the rebel army came in in the afternoon," NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reported, "and the fighting was fierce, but brief."
Ras Lanuf is strategically important in a battle for territory as Gadhafi forces push back on rebels from the east. Those rebels, Garcia-Navarro said, are now on the march toward Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte on the Mediterranean coast.
"There is really a ... feeling that they can take whatever Gadhafi throws at them and that they want to take his hometown and stronghold of Sirte," she said.
Planes sent by Gadhafi bombed Ras Lanuf on Saturday morning, sending smoke and sand into the air over the desert. The large oil refinery was untouched, however.
Signs of the pitched battle littered the roadside: burned cars and bits of debris. Standing at a rebel checkpoint wearing olive green fatigues, Lameen al-Mohashash said this was not the end of the fight.
"We are blocking the runway because we are afraid Gadhafi might fly in his troops to counterattack," he said, "but we are gaining ground step by step."
One of the rebels, Ahmed al-Zawi, said the battle was won after Ras Lanuf residents joined the rebels.
Al-Zawi, who participated in the fighting, said 12 rebels were killed in the fighting, in which rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns were used.
Officials at a hospital in the nearby city of Ajdabiya, however, said only five rebels were killed and 31 wounded in the attack. The discrepancy in the figures could not immediately be explained.
"They just follow orders. After a little bit of fighting, they run away," said another rebel at Ras Lanuf, Borawi Saleh, an 11-year veteran of the army who is now an oil company employee.
Also Saturday, witnesses said a Libyan jet fighter crashed near Ras Lanuf. The witnesses showed reporters photos of the pilot's body and twisted wreckage from the plane. The cause of the crash couldn't immediately be determined.
Meanwhile, it's a lawless environment in Ras Lanuf without police or formal law enforcement.
"What we did see this morning was ammunition that apparently the Gadhafi forces left behind in their retreat," Garcia-Navarro reported. "That has been taken in now by the rebel forces to resupply their forward operations toward Sirte.
"There is a real sense, they say, of momentum," she said. "They do feel that they've scored a pretty impressive victory in short spaces of time, and that they want to capitalize on that."
The rebels feel if they can take Sirte, Garcia-Navarro said, then all bets are off for the rest of the country.
But Sirte is a major obstacle, heavily reinforced with Gadhafi's troops and loyalists.
In a phone interview, Juma'a al-Fardawi, a policeman in Sirte, said there were rumors that 20 army officers were killed for refusing to fire on the rebels in the battle for Ras Lanuf. He said the people in the community are divided and afraid.
"The tribes in Sirte do not want to fight with the rebels. People have barricaded themselves in their homes," he said.
Large Explosion Rocks Benghazi
Outside Benghazi, the largest city in the rebel-held east of the country, a large arms and ammunition depot blew up Friday in a massive explosion that destroyed an area three times the size of a soccer field.
Ambulance drivers who rushed to the site reported that at least 26 people were killed in the blast.
Associated Press photographers who arrived Saturday saw entire buildings, cars and trees flattened and smoldering as a result of the blast.
It was not immediately clear how the depot blew up, but suspicion immediately fell on Gadhafi agents seeking to deny the rebels the arms and ammunition they need to fight their way westward toward Sirte.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and Peter Kenyon contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press.