BENGHAZI, Libya — A ragtag rebel force in pickups and commandeered tanks advanced Saturday from eastern Libya on Moammar Gadhafi's heavily defended hometown of Sirte as their counterparts in the western city of Zawiya repulsed fresh assaults by the dictator's forces, witnesses and news reports said.
"We have decided to die or finish the regime of Gadhafi," Ahmed, a fighter in Zawiya, declared by telephone after hours of fierce combat. "This is a catastrophe. This is a real war."
In the eastern city of Benghazi, the rebels' leadership council sought to begin instilling some coordination and discipline on the largely leaderless uprising, naming a three-member crisis committee to oversee military and foreign affairs. It also called on the United States to impose a no-fly zone on the North African country to keep Gadhafi's air force on the ground, a move the Obama administration is considering.
Meanwhile, two U.S. Air Force C-130 transport planes flew from the Tunisian town of Djerba to Cairo 132 Egyptians who fled Libya's burgeoning civil war, according to State Department spokesman P.J Crowley.
The flights were the first staged since President Barack Obama on Thursday directed U.S. humanitarian flights to help repatriate tens of thousands of foreign workers who have been stuck for days at the Egyptian and Tunisian borders with little food and water, poor hygienic conditions, and no way home.
Thousands of people are believed to have been killed and wounded in the upheaval that erupted when Gadhafi unleashed brutal crackdowns on protests against his 42-year rule that were triggered more than two weeks ago by the largely peaceful pro-democracy uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
The vicious onslaughts against the protesters have triggered U.N. sanctions against the regime and a war crimes investigation by International Criminal Court of Gadhafi, several of his sons and top aides.
A rebel force of civilians and military defectors armed with a hodge-podge of weapons, from tanks and shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles and heavy machine guns mounted on pickup trucks, was moving along the main coastal highway of eastern Libya toward Sirte, Gadhafi's hometown, witnesses said.
"The youth keep going west (toward Sirte). More are going every day," said Osama Orafee, a fighter stationed outside of Ajdabiya, about 95 miles south of Benghazi, along the main highway skirting the Gulf of Sidra.
The advance came after thousands of men, pouring in from across rebel-controlled eastern Libya, on Saturday captured Ras Lanouf, the country's largest oil exporting terminal, about 70 miles down the highway from Ajdabiya, and only 90 miles from Sirte.
Several witnesses said anti-Gadhafi fighters had reached Bin Jawwad, a small town about two thirds of the way to Sirte from Ras Lanouf.
The rapid rebel advance has been aided by the vast expanses of indefensible barren desert that stretch between the towns and cities along the highway.
But the fight for Sirte was expected to be hard and bloody. Gadhafi is thought to have built up a hardcore following in and around the town, especially among members of his Gadhadhfa tribe, by lavishing the area with money and development projects funded by Libya's petroleum profits.
Sirte's fall also would open the way for the rebels into the western Tripolitania region, putting Tripoli under threat.
The worst violence on Saturday occurred in Zawiya, the closest rebel-controlled city to Gadhafi's stronghold of Tripoli, said news reports and several residents reached by telephone.
Gadhafi's forces, which have cut off Libya's fourth-largest city since Feb. 17, launched an early morning attack "from the west, east and south. They used mortars, tanks and machine guns," said a doctor reached at the main hospital. McClatchy agreed to withhold his name for his safety.
"Our batteries destroyed three tanks and captured three tanks," said the doctor. "We killed 15 to 20 attackers and we captured six attackers. The attack went on for four or five hours" before it was beaten back.
Gadhafi's forces, believed to belong to the Khamis Brigade, an elite unit commanded by one of the dictator's sons, unleashed a second assault around 4 p.m., sending tanks into the main square, said the doctor and Ahmed, the fighter who asked that his last name be withheld.
"They were firing randomly on buildings and on everybody in the street," the doctor recounted. One of the shells killed the rebels' prisoners, he said, an account confirmed in the separate interview with Ahmed. Both said that the rebels destroyed two tanks.
"There was too much shooting. Every weapon was used," said Ahmed. "The buildings all around (the square) were shooted by the tanks in the second attack. They shot everywhere and every place."
The fighting raged for several hours before the regime forces were driven off by a rebel counter-attack.
"We are now closing all of the ways to enter the center and are hoping tonight will be calm," said Ahmed.
At least 15 people were killed and 41 injured, but that the toll was most likely higher, the doctor said. Ahmed, who said he visited the hospital after the battle, also put the number of dead at 15.
"We have three operation rooms and all are occupied" treating casualties, the doctor said. "We don't have any more supplies. Our situation is very difficult in the hospital. No sutures. No antibiotics. All the stuff we have used in two days of big fighting."
"We are eating only bread and water," he said.
The rebels' National Libyan Council announced the new crisis committee at a news conference at which it said that its legitimacy derived from the backing it has received from committees of leading citizens, former officials and military defectors that have been running the cities and towns of the rebellious east.
Omar Hariri, who was one of the young officers who backed Gadhafi's bloodless overthrow of the monarchy in 1969 but was later jailed by the dictator, was named to oversee the military.
A former Libyan ambassador to India, Ali Essawi, will oversee contacts with foreign governments, and Mahmoud Jebril, an intellectual involved in a project that was examining how to bring democracy to the police state, was tapped as the group's leader.
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