Pro-Gadhafi forces launch attack on oil hub in eastern Libya

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 2, 2011 

BREGA, Libya — Ground and air forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi attacked this key oil terminal city Wednesday, but were repulsed by a motley army of volunteer fighters seeking to oust the Libyan dictator.

Witnesses said the attack began around 6 a.m., with pro-govermment forces arriving in 50 to 60 military vehicles. The forces seized people at the he university’s engineering school, then moved to the city's port. Air force jets dropped at least two bombs at the university.

As word of the fighting spread, volunteers poured in from throughout rebel-held eastern Libya, many of them armed with only handguns — or nothing at all. One man was seen trying to fix a gun with a meat cleaver and a stick.

Despite what appeared to be little organization among the rebels and not enough weapons, Gadhafi's forces eventually withdrew toward Sirte, the Libyan leader's hometown some 150 miles to the west.

How many people died on each side was unclear. Many rebel fighters who returned to Ajdabiya were being treated for gunshot wounds at that city's hospital, where people lined up to donate blood. Brega's hspital is still under construction.

It was not clear whether Gadhafi's forces hoped to seize Brega or simply harass the rebels and take hostages. But the attack opened a new front in fighting that previously had been confined primarily to the western cities of Zawiya and Misurata, and, sporadically, in the capital of Tripoli.

The use of air power also indicated that at least part of the Libyan air force remains loyal to Gadhafi, despite the defections of some pilots two weeks ago.

It also gave a view of how prepared rebels in the east are to respond to forays by pro-Gadhafi forces. Volunteers departing through a high green arched gate at the outskirts of the nearby city of Ajdabiya rallied to cries of “God is great” and celebratory volleys of gunfire.

“I wanted to defend my city, but I didn’t have a weapon,” said Mabrouk Yabha, 26, who was being treated with other wounded men in Ajdabiya. “We were walking when we were shot. I saw people dead, but I couldn’t tell you how many.”

By nightfall, the road from Brega to Ajdabiya, a 45-minute drive, was lined with men returning from the day’s fighting.

In Tripoli, Gadhafi issued another televised diatribe blaming al Qaida-linked terrorists and foreign operatives for the turmoil that has engulfed this oil-rich North African nation since unrest broke out Feb. 16. The specter of a civil war looms large now, with Gadhafi urging his loyalists to fight for Libya, “inch by inch.”

“This is the Libyan people, standing in defiance, backing their own symbolic leader,” Gadhafi said, as his supporters in the room cheered as if on cue.

Gadhafi told the news conference in Tripoli that what witnesses have described as government attacks on peaceful demonstrations, were actually the acts of terrorist sleeper cells seeking control of Libya’s oil and land. He also claimed that army commanders only defected because they were forced to do so at gunpoint by “terrorists.”

As Gahdafi spoke, television channels simultaneously aired footage of a large demonstration in the eastern city of Benghazi, where some protesters held signs saying, “He’s lying now.”

In Washington, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said Obama should consider a no-fly zone to stop Gadhafi from using air power. “A no fly-zone is not a long-term proposition and we should be ready to implement it as necessary,” Kerry said at a hearing where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified.

But Clinton told the hearing that “we are long way” from a decision on a no-fly zone.

(Youssef reported from Brega and Ajdabiya; Allam, from Cairo. Warren P. Strobel contributed from Washington.)

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