Pro-Gadhafi Troops Battle Rebels In Oil Ports

An oil facility in Sidrah, Libya was the target of air strikes Wednesday. Ras Lanuf itself is still in rebel hands but devoid of civilian residents now. Bombing of a water main has cut off supplies to the hospital — which is now only dealing with emergency cases. Meanwhile, a Gadhafi envoy has arrived in Cairo.

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Troops loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi battled rebels today at oil ports along the Mediterranean. The fighting included fiery explosions at the oil terminal in Sidrah and attacks at Ras Lanuf. Gadhafi said today that his people would fight any attempt to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.

NPR's Peter Kenyon was in Ras Lanuf today, and he has this report.

PETER KENYON: Plumes of smoke rose into the sky over Sidrah as rebel fighters and Libyan official media traded accusations as to who was responsible. Rebel fighters and officials said Gadhafi's forces had attacked the oil facility at Sidrah, while Libyan state TV said al-Qaida-backed rebels had set off the explosions.

Abdul Hamid Bareesh(ph), a rebel fighter reached by telephone, described the scene.

Mr. ABDUL HAMID BAREESH: (Through Translator) There were three plumes of smoke visible before. Now, there are two plumes mixing together.

KENYON: Earlier in the day, Bareesh had been at the frontlines of the fighting as rebels tried and failed to retake the village of Ben Jawad. He said the artillery shells and airstrikes of the Libyan forces had left significant causalities on the rebel side.

Mr. BAREESH: (Through Translator) A number of dead bodies came from the front, maybe 10. They were killed in airstrikes. And wounded? There's a lot of them, maybe 50 or more.

KENYON: The numbers of dead and wounded could not immediately be confirmed. Until now, both sides have been at pains not to damage Libya's oil and gas infrastructure, which provides a large chunk of revenue to the Gadhafi regime. Witnesses also reported artillery shells landing and smoke rising around Ras Lanuf, another key oil complex still in rebel hands.

Financial news services reported that the refinery there remained undamaged despite the fighting, although the facility was closed and the news was causing oil prices to continue their rise.

The largely volunteer rebel force was showing signs of discipline today that had been previously lacking.

Osama al-Katrani(ph), a 25-year-old fighter in clean olive-green fatigues, accurately predicted earlier in the day that the most intense fighting would be around Sidrah.

Mr. OSAMA AL-KATRANI: (Through Translator) The battle is up to Sidrah, and right now, it is under our control. We are in charge of the entrance to Sidrah. They've been hitting us with shells, but, God willing, we'll be victorious.

KENYON: Several hours later, as rebels retreated to Ras Lanuf under a hail of artillery shells and rocket attacks, it was clear that this seesaw conflict was for the moment swinging back in favor of the pro-government troops.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: A group of rebels huddled around a jeep to hear the latest pro-rebel commentary on the radio. The speaker offered abundant reasons for redoubling their efforts to unseat Gadhafi, but no suggestions for how to get around the Libyan air force and artillery without outside assistance.

In an interview with Turkish television, Gadhafi said the imposition of a no-fly zone would reveal the West's intention to seize Libyan oil, and he vowed that Libyans would fight such a move, although he didn't explain how.

A Libyan envoy, meanwhile, arrived in Cairo with an undisclosed message from Gadhafi. Cairo hosts the Arab League, which is due to debate the no-fly zone this weekend.

NATO is also due to take up the issue, which has received a mixed reception in European capitals.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

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