By Leila Fadel , Liz Sly and Steve Hendrix
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.
"These light weapons are not enough," said Mohammed Sultan, 36, waving the rifle that he had used to attack the pro-Gaddafi forces. "How can [Gaddafi] say we love him. We hate him. We don't want him."
In the white sand dunes overlooking Brega's main road just west of the town in this oil-rich area, rebel fighters lay in wait Wednesday afternoon behind a small hill that barely protected them from shelling by the Gaddafi forces.
The loyalists were surrounded after being pushed back from the oil facilities and port and were running out of ammunition, rebel fighters said. Plumes of smoke rose from the main road of Brega where Gaddafi forces were holed up near the university.
Khamees Suwairi, a member of the Libyan special forces who had joined the opposition, sat with a bazooka in the white sand with a gaggle of other armed men. Another young man prayed for the fighters as explosions reverberated around them. Then Suwairi, who had come from Ajdabiya in the morning with other rebels, advanced with his group toward the university to attack.
"We have to protect our families. They have women and children there," he said, claiming that Gaddafi's forces had taken families hostage. "We will die for our freedom."
Another young rebel, Hayb Mohammed, 22, ran in and out of the battlefield to resupply the fighters with ammunition. Ambulances with blaring sirens filled the roads behind them. Doctors and paramedics flowed into Brega to help.
"God will protect us. We are willing to die," Mohammed said.
Moments later, as the loyalist forces attempted to retreat from near Brega's university, a warplane dropped a powerful bomb on the place where Suwairi had waited before dashing off to fight.
By 6 p.m., the Gaddafi forces had pulled back, fighters said, and the town was recaptured.
About 5,000 rebel fighters then advanced farther west to strengthen the front line, while others planned to move toward Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte before marching on to Tripoli.
"We fought them off, and Brega is under our control," said Omar Sultan, 33. He said he was heading 15 miles west of Brega to regroup with other fighters.
On the roads, dozens of trucks sped west, and men yelled their intentions to go to the capital. Some were soldiers and special forces members, while others were young men with little or no training.
The number of casualties from the battle was not immediately clear. At least six dead and 13 wounded were brought to the main hospital of Ajdabiya, and doctors were expecting more casualties to arrive by Wednesday night.
Earlier, a paramedic said 14 people were killed in the fighting.
Approximately 200 loyalists fled Brega after the rebel counterattack, the Associated Press reported.
The loyalists reportedly came from Sirte, the Gaddafi stronghold about 200 miles west of Brega.
In Tripoli, Gaddafi said the rebellion that has claimed large swaths of his county has been exaggerated and miscast by foreign media as a popular revolt. With some rebel forces calling on the international community to provide military support, Gaddafi warned that any intervention would lead to "a bloody war."
"Thousands of Libyans will die if America and NATO enter Libya," Gaddafi said in a lengthy address to supporters that swung between humility and threats. He rejected claims that the country was in danger of food shortages, saying that Libyans calling for international aid were "guilty of treason."
Gaddafi, who seized power in 1969, said he held no formal role in Libya's government and therefore had no position to resign. He warned the West that instability in his country could lead to a spike in Islamic terrorism and a flood of migrant African workers into Europe.
U.S. military officials on Tuesday played down the likelihood of the United States setting up a no-fly zone. But opposition leaders said they had little choice but to seek such intervention.
In Misurata, a city about 130 miles east of Tripoli that is besieged by Gaddafi's militias, residents also want foreign help.
"A no-fly zone would limit his movements, his ability to move mercenaries from south to north and to recruit mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa," said Saadoun, a member of a newly formed "media committee" in Misurata. He requested that he be identified only by a nom de guerre because Misurata remains hotly contested.
"Providing military equipment and arms to our free army in the east will help the free army march to Tripoli," Saadoun said in a telephone interview. "And we want surgical military strikes to target his militia and make this end swiftly and quickly and not to shed any more innocent Libyan blood."
In his remarks on state television Wednesday, Gaddafi alleged that al-Qaeda sleeper cells, supported by "outside forces," had attacked isolated army posts in the eastern part of Libya, including Benghazi. That city fell, he said, only because he ordered the army not to resist.
"I told them to abandon the battalion camp and go home to avoid bloodshed," he told a chamber filled with chanting supporters, his third national address on recent events. Gaddafi denied that Libyan forces had fired on protesters, saying it was rebels who opened fire "on their own people."
Gaddafi scoffed at moves in recent days to freeze his assets abroad, saying that he had no money or property overseas. The Libyan government and the Gaddafi family have a global array of holdings - including a Hollywood production company, an Italian soccer team, valuable London real estate and billions of dollars in overseas bank deposits.
"Now the terrorist operatives are wreaking havoc, killing people, raping women and taking refuge inside mosques," Gaddafi said. "Do not believe media reports from the outside."
Gaddafi appeared both increasingly delusional and more than willing to endure a long fight, making a peaceful resolution more difficult, said Ibrahim Sharqieh of the Brookings Doha Center. "The level of disconnect is really alarming," said Sharqieh, speaking on al-Jazeera. "He seems comfortable now. He's adjusted to this situation."
The state of play in Misurata illustrates the risk of a protracted standoff, or even that Gaddafi loyalists might be able to reassert themselves. Misurata lies on the coast between Sirte and Tripoli, where he still appears to command enough support to hold the uprising at bay.
Saadoun, the media committee spokesman in Misurata, said rebels have captured enough weapons from defected army units to defend the town center but not enough to dislodge the militias from the outskirts. Several thousand regime opponents held a large and peaceful demonstration in the main square Wednesday, according to residents and the spokesman. They also claim control over most of the vast military air base to the south.
But militias loyal to Gaddafi have retained control of a portion of the base, and there are near-daily confrontations between rebels and the militias along what has become a front line running through the airfield.
The militias also control a barracks on the edge of the town. And residents said that on Sunday night, gunmen presumed to be loyal to Gaddafi abducted 400 students from a remote military academy. The gunmen shot their way in, loaded the students onto buses and drove them to an unknown destination, said Saadoun, citing the accounts of two officers at the base who escaped.
In a sign that Gaddafi's forces might be recovering from the initial shock of the sudden uprising, the strategic mountaintop town of Gharyan, overlooking Tripoli, has been recaptured by government loyalists after falling to the opposition Friday, said a resident of the town quoted by the Associated Press.
Zawiyah, another town nominally in rebel hands but ringed by Gaddafi loyalists, repelled an attack by government forces overnight Monday, with both sides using tanks, antiaircraft guns and automatic weapons, the news agency reported.
Sly and Hendrix reported from Cairo. Staff writer William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.