Rebels repel Gaddafi loyalists in battle for key Libyan oil port

Libyan rebels repelled an assault by troops backing Moammar Gaddafi in a key oil port Wednesday. The battle in the town of Brega lasted for hours until the attackers beat a retreat. (March 2)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 5:43 PM

BREGA, LIBYA - Rebel fighters repelled powerful ground and air assaults on this key oil port Wednesday as forces loyal to Moammar Gaddafi launched their first offensive against the opposition-controlled eastern part of Libya.

Despite old equipment and little training, thousands of rag-tag rebels recaptured the town in a counterattack after hours of fighting, forcing the loyalists to flee. Emboldened, the rebels vowed to drive westward to the capital, Tripoli, Gaddafi's main stronghold.

The fight for Brega, a vital facility for Libyan oil exports, came as the 68-year-old strongman told supporters in Tripoli that he would "fight to the last drop of Libyan blood" to defeat a revolt that he denounced as instigated by Islamic extremists.

In Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city and the center of resistance to Gaddafi, a new interim governing council for opposition-controlled parts of the country called on foreign nations to carry out airstrikes and impose a "no-fly zone" over Libya to protect the uprising from attacks by Gaddafi's forces. A spokesman for the council, Abdul Hafiz Gogha, said the body also wants foreign governments to deal only with Libyan embassies that have sided with the resistance.

As the battle for Brega raged, two U.S. amphibious assault ships reached the Mediterranean, U.S. military officials said. The USS Ponce and the USS Kearsarge - ships that can carry helicopters, landing craft and hundreds of Marines - passed through the Suez Canal from the Red Sea. The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise remained in the Red Sea, and officials would not immediately say whether it would be sent to the Mediterranean.

In Tripoli, meanwhile, pro-Gaddafi militiamen launched a series of raids aimed at people who participated in recent anti-government demonstrations, seizing dozens from their homes, the Associated Press reported.

The loyalist attack on the oil port about 50 miles southwest of the rebel-held town of Ajdabiya initially sent panic through the eastern part of the country, where the opposition has seized control of many cities.

The attacking Gaddafi loyalists arrived in more than 60 armed vehicles and shelled the area. Rebel forces then counterattacked.

During the battle, Libyan warplanes dropped bombs near a munitions storage area in Ajdabiya and struck the port and center of Brega. Rebel fighters, determined to hold the port, flowed into the area armed with machine guns, AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, bazookas, antiaircraft guns and even machetes and meat skewers.

In Ajdabiya, a town about 100 miles south of Benghazi, hundreds of men unloaded and cleaned old military munitions and gave them to young fighters heading to the front lines.

"He [Gaddafi] has the force, but we have the heart," said Suleiman Abdel, a surgeon, standing at the western gate of Ajdabiya near fighters manning two antiaircraft guns.

Some returned from Brega with their rifles to get more arms.

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