Libya gains control of more rebel territory

Libya’s government said it had taken over the oil terminal of Brega on Sunday and would press eastward to the rebels’ self-styled capital of Benghazi, as Western diplomats remained mixed over intervention in the Libyan crisis.

The takeover of Brega came three days after a similar capture of Ras Lanuf, another oil port 77 miles further west, following heavy bombardment.

“Brega has been liberated,” said Col. Milad Hussein, an army spokesman, adding that he did not anticipate a tough battle in Benghazi. He said that the government hopes to resolve the crisis “through reconciliation” with tribal leaders in eastern Libya but that the rebel movement is not proving to be a potent adversary.

“To deal with them you don’t need full-scale military action,” the Libyan spokesman said. “They are groups of people who, when you come to them, they just raise their hands and go. ”

Abdul Fattah Younis, chief of staff of the rebel army and former interior minister in Gaddafi’s government, told reporters that rebel forces conducted a strategic retreat from Brega. And he vowed to protect Ajdabiya, the next rebel-held town to the east, 49 miles from Brega.

The government’s announcement came as world leaders debated the merits of imposing a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent airstrikes by Gaddafi forces.

The Arab League on Saturday endorsed the idea, which is to be discussed by NATO representatives this week. France supports the plan and has officially recognized the opposition government.

But the United States has shied away from a position, fearing an anti-American backlash if it becomes involved in military action in another Muslim country in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to meet with Libyan opposition leaders in Paris on Monday.

Supporters of a no-fly zone fear it may come too late to be useful. The area around Benghazi, the center of rebel command, appeared increasingly unstable over the weekend.

On Saturday, an al-Jazeera cameraman was fatally shot in an apparent ambush outside the city, according to the network, the first report of a journalist killed in Libya since the conflict began.

Ali Hassan al-Jaber, a native of Qatar, was returning to Benghazi from a nearby town after reporting on an opposition protest when the car he was traveling in came under fire, killing him and wounding a colleague.

One of those who fled Brega on Sunday was Yousef Sanoushi, an architect from Brega who was interviewed by phone from Benghazi. “They started the attack at 6 a.m., and it went on during the day,” he said. “They were using heavy shelling [and] . . . launching rockets from trucks.”

Opposition strongholds across Libya have been shelled to rubble in recent days, including the western town of Zawiyah, where witnesses, in phone conversations, described massive destruction before disappearing from contact.

A similar fate appeared to threaten Misurata, Libya’s third-largest city and the only one outside the east still under rebel control and surrounded by government forces.

There was word of dissent within government forces there Saturday and Sunday, with the sound of heavy clashes coming from 10 miles or so outside the city for two nights in a row, one witness said.

“According to what we know, these were internal clashes within the Khamis Brigade between Gaddafi loyalists and those who have shifted their alliance to the rebels,” said Misurata resident Mohamad Sanusi, 42, by phone Sunday.

Sanusi said he had heard that “there is a senior officer that is heading this group that’s engaged in a mutiny. They did not join the rebels, but they have said that they refuse to attack the civilians.”

Hussein, the army spokesman, denied a Reuters report that some soldiers had defected to the rebel side. “These people are trained and they believe in Brother Moammar Gaddafi, and they won’t leave him for these gangs,” he said.

He acknowledged, however, that rebels still control the town.

“There are gangs inside,” he said, describing the rebels. “Some have handed back their weapons and some will be dealt with.”

Misurata, 131 miles east of Tripoli, still had access to gas and basic food supplies, but medical supplies were dwindling, Sanusi said.

In government-held Ras Lanuf, an oil facility was burning days after the violent retaking of the city, and the head of Libya’s National Oil Co. asked Italian oil company Eni SpA for help extinguishing it, citing the danger of environmental damage to the Mediterranean Sea, the Associated Press reported.

In Tripoli, government military vehicles were reportedly headed west from the city Sunday, according to a resident who said he saw them as he drove 15 miles out of the city to use his mobile phone.

He said he assumed they were heading toward the “western mountains” 120 miles away, where rebels are holed up.

“They are armed and in difficult-to-reach places,” said the man, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. “Trucks can’t go there, but they could bombard them from the air. . . .They’re expecting to be bombed any minute.”

As opposition fighters across Libya face starkly uneven odds against Gaddafi’s forces, Sanusi and the Tripoli resident said their hopes were pinned on international intervention.

“We are all waiting for the United Nations Security Council to take its decision on declaring the no-fly zone,” Sanusi said. “After that will happen, the balance of power will shift and the rest of the areas will be liberated.”

Bahrampour reported from Tunis. Special correspondent Samuel Sockol in Tunis contributed to this report.

Liz Sly is the Post’s Beirut bureau chief. She has spent more than 15 years covering the Middle East, including the Iraq war. Other postings include Africa, China and Afghanistan.
Tara Bahrampour, a staff writer based in Washington, D.C., writes about aging and mental health.
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