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Libya rebels rout Gadhafi force attack on oil port

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By PAUL SCHEMM
The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 3:36 PM

BREGA, Libya -- Rebel forces routed troops loyal to Moammar Gadhafi in a fierce, topsy-turvy battle over an oil port Wednesday, scrambling over the dunes of a Mediterranean beach through shelling and an airstrike to corner their attackers. The daylong fighting blunted the regime's first counteroffensive against opposition-held eastern Libya.

At least 10 anti-Gadhafi fighters were killed and 18 wounded in the battle over Brega, Libya's second largest petroleum facility, which the opposition has held since last week. Citizen militias flowed in from a nearby city and from the opposition stronghold of Benghazi hours away to reinforce the defense, finally repelling the regime loyalists.

The attack began just after dawn, when several hundred pro-Gadhafi forces in 50 trucks and SUVs mounted with machine guns descended on the port, driving out a small opposition contingent and seizing control of the oil facilities, port and airstrip. But by afternoon, they had lost it all and had retreated to a university campus 5 miles (7 kilometers) away.

There, opposition fighters besieged them, clambering from the beach up a hill to the campus as mortars and heavy machine gun fire blasted around them, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene. They took cover behind grassy dunes, firing back with assault rifles, machine guns and grenade launchers. At one point a warplane struck in the dunes to try to disperse them, but it caused no casualties and the siege continued.

"The dogs have fled," one middle-aged fighter shouted, waving his Kalashnikov over his head in victory after the Gadhafi forces withdrew from the town before nightfall. Cars honked their horns and many people fired assault rifles in the air in celebration.

The attack on Brega, 460 miles (740 kilometers) east of Gadhafi's stronghold in Tripoli, illustrated the deep difficulties the Libyan leader's armed forces - an array of militiamen, mercenaries and military units - have had in rolling back the uprising that has swept over the entire eastern half of Libya since Feb. 15.

For the past week, pro-Gadhafi forces have been focusing on the west, securing the capital Tripoli and trying to take back nearby rebel-held cities. But the regime has seemed to struggle to bring an overwhelming force to bear against cities largely defended by local residents using weapons looted from storehouses and backed by allied army units.

Pro-Gadhafi forces succeeded over the weekend in retaking two small towns. But the major western rebel-held cities of Zawiya and Misrata, near Tripoli, have both repelled repeated, major attacks - including new forays against Zawiya on Wednesday.

In the capital, Gadhafi vowed, "We will fight until the last man and woman." He lashed out against Europe and the United States for their pressure on him to step down, warning that thousands of Libyans will die if U.S. and NATO forces intervene in the conflict.

"We will not accept an intervention like that of the Italians that lasted decades," Gadhafi told a gathering of supporters and journalists, referring to Italy's colonial rule early in the 20th Century. "We will not accept a similar American intervention. This will lead to a bloody war and thousands of Libyans will die if America and NATO enter Libya."

In Benghazi, Libya's second largest city and the stronghold of the rebellion in the east, a self-declared "interim government council" formed by the opposition called on foreign nations to carry out airstrikes on non-Libyan African mercenaries that Gadhafi has used in his militias to put down the uprising.

Council spokesman Abdel-Hafiz Hoga said the council urged airstrikes on the "strongholds of the mercenaries .... used against civilians and people."


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