Explosion Rocks Libyan Rebel Stronghold Benghazi

In the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi, at least 19 people were killed in a huge explosion at a munitions storage facility Friday night.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

In Libya, forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi have mounted a major counterattack against anti-government rebels inside the western city of Zawiya. In eastern Libya, rebel forces claim to have taken the oil port city of Ras Lanuf.

The latest fighting and upheaval suggests that the conflict in Libya could endure for weeks, possibly months. The rebel stronghold of Benghazi last night, at least 19 people were killed in a huge explosion at a munitions storage facility.

NPRs Peter Kenyon was at the scene. He has this report.

PETER KENYON: Witnesses reached by phone in Zawiya who were afraid to identify themselves, said there were a number of casualties in Zawiya, but they couldn't provide firm figures or identify which side was taking the most losses.

Located just 30 miles from the capital, Zawiya is seen as a strategically important city, and anti-government officers believe having the rebel held city virtually on Gadhafis doorstep is also psychologically important. Pro-Gadhafi forces are expected to make another attempt to take control of the city. To the east, anti-government forces continued their assault on the oil port of Ras Lanuf, the furthest west the rebels have pushed since taking control of much of the eastern part of Libya.

Witnesses and journalists in the area said rebel forces appeared to be in control, with some skirmishes still going on. In Benghazi, a confident day of anti-Gadhafi rallies and demonstrations yesterday was shattered by huge explosions at a military munitions depot just outside the city. Located in a rural residential area, the base was the scene of utter destruction last night.

(Soundbite of ambulance sirens)

(Soundbite of shouting man)

KENYON: There were conflicting accounts of what might have caused the explosions. This man, who gave his name as Rabia, believes it's the work of pro-Gadhafi saboteurs.

RABIA: (Foreign language spoken) (Through Translator) They came in and planted explosives around the buildings. Who would do this with so many civilians living right next door? It's not human.

KENYON: At leased for fires blazed with various colors of smoke washing sour fumes over the area. Rescue crews scrambled to distribute medical masks as they and nearby residents stumbled through the rubble of destroyed concrete buildings and wrecked cars, looking for survivors.

Faraj, a doctor who volunteered to help, said he didn't find many.

FARAJ (Physician): I take six bodies, and found one alive only. You see many people here are collecting, and there are still many bodies inside. We dont know how many there are.

(Soundbite of people shouting)

KENYON: Rescue crews said it was impossible to get an accurate death count because of bodies still trapped beneath the rubble or in the burning buildings, which were too hot to get close to.

Army Colonel Ahmed Saiti, one of the officers now supporting the anti-Gadhafi rebels, said there were signs that it might have been an airstrike, but any in any case, he blamed Pro-Gadhafi forces.

Colonel AHMED SAITI: (Foreign language spoken) (Through Translator) Gadhafi is a dirty dog for blowing up an ammunition depot, knowing there are civilians who live all around it. These depots are known locations. They knew just where to hit.

KENYON: The increasing violence comes as the largely ad hoc rebel government struggles to form a coherent message beyond calling for international airstrikes. Most governments have shown reluctance to get involved in a conflict that some fear could regress into civil war among Libya's tribes. So far, tribal leaders say that won't happen, but with each day of bloodshed the uncertainty grows.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Benghazi.

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