Gadhafi Forces Ambush Rebels In Eastern Libya

Rebels in Eastern Libya suffered a serious setback Sunday when they were ambushed by forces loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi in the city of Bin Jawad. The attack left the rebels' hold on the nearby city of Ras Lanuf in jeopardy, and halted the rebel advance on Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

Heated battles continue today between Libyan rebels and forces loyal to Colonel Moammar Gadhafi. There have been reports this morning of gunfire in the capital city of Tripoli. The government claims the shots were fired to celebrate victories over rebel forces. Opposition leaders dismiss those claims as propaganda.

But there are signs that the rebels are being beaten back in some areas. They had seized control of parts of Zawiyah, a coastal city about 30 miles from Tripoli, but there have been pitch battles there and it's now uncertain whether the rebels can hold on.

Opposition forces also faced a setback this morning on the road leading to Moammar Gadhafi's home city of Sirte. They were ambushed by government troops in the town of Bin Jawad, apparently suffering heavy casualties. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in eastern Libya. We spoke with her earlier about the fighting there.

Lulu, just tell us where you are and describe the scene there for us, please.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm in the town of Ras Lanuf, which was taken by rebel forces two days ago. And the scene at that point was jubilation. The rebels were celebrating a victory here. This is an oil refinery town that had been in the control of Gadhafi forces. And they took it and they took it pretty easily.

Today, the mood is very, very different. We've seen ambulances streaming from the front. I've seen injured men with blood dripping down the front of them. There is a fierce battle taking place around 20 miles from here to the west. The rebels say that they were ambushed in the town of Bin Jawad and that there are very strong clashes taking place with Gadhafi forces there.

And so the mood right now is that they're not even sure that they can keep Ras Lanuf. Their sense of victory, their march towards the west, has been abruptly halted in Bin Jawad for now.

NEARY: So, the rebels have been stopped?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The rebels have been stopped at the town of Bin Jawad, which is about halfway from where I am now in Ras Lanuf to the Gadhafi stronghold and hometown of Sirte. It's a place that he has heavily reinforced. His loyalists are from there. And it is key because it basically is what is stopping the rebel forces from advancing all the way to Tripoli. All roads go through the coastal town of Sirte.

The rebels felt very flush with victories that they've had in recent days -taking the town of Ras Lanuf, where I am now, and before that Brega. And they were going to make a concerted push toward the town of Sirte but they've been stopped at a village about halfway from where I am now to Sirte. They say Gadhafi forces are firing artillery at them. They say even locals have joined the Gadhafi side and are also joining in this ambush of the rebel forces.

NEARY: What does this mean then for the opposition movement in Libya?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What we're seeing right now is a rebel army that is really trying to figure out what to do next. This is a disparate group of people. They don't seem to have any central command. They're using weapons that they've looted from military bases. They do feel, though, a great sense that if they do not win this fight, if they are not able to push forward, that basically Gadhafi will use all means at this disposal to crush them. They feel that this is a fight to the very death.

And we have seen today airstrikes happening on rebel positions. I was at a checkpoint that not 10 minutes before had been bombed by airplanes. There was a huge crater in the ground, a rebel vehicle sort of half-submerged in the sand. There's a great sense of fear here but also of determination, that they must move forward, that they must keep the territory that they've managed to win so far.

NEARY: OK. Thank you so much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

NEARY: That was NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reporting from eastern Libya.

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