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Libyan rebels push back assault by Gaddafi forces in port city of Brega

By Leila Fadel and Steve Hendrix
Thursday, March 3, 2011; A01

BREGA, LIBYA - Rebels fought off a coordinated assault by military jets and armored ground forces near a key oil port Wednesday, thwarting Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi's most significant attempt yet to retake eastern territory that he lost last week amid a nationwide uprising.

Despite aged equipment and little training, a ragtag team of thousands that rushed to Brega repelled government forces and retook the port city after setbacks earlier in the day. Emboldened by their victory, the rebels planned to advance west and on to Gaddafi's stronghold of Tripoli, the capital, some said.

"He has the force, but we have the heart," said Suleiman Abdel, a surgeon and, now, a rebel.

The government's assault on Brega, which included multiple airstrikes, showed that Gaddafi still has substantial military resources at his disposal - and that he is willing to use them. Even as the battle unfolded, Gaddafi pledged in a defiant televised address to "fight to the last drop of Libyan blood."

The day's clashes suggested that in the absence of outside intervention, Libya could be headed toward a long and bloody stalemate. Gaddafi holds Tripoli and other western cities, the rebels control the east, and neither side appears able to decisively shift the balance.

"He showed he still has the power to inflict serious damage on the protesters and the places they control," said Ibrahim Sharqieh of the Brookings Doha Center. "If he is willing to use the air force, this could drag on for months."

Rebel leaders in the eastern city of Benghazi called Wednesday for international airstrikes against government targets, as well as a no-fly zone to keep Gaddafi's planes out of the sky. But U.S. officials have said that such steps are unlikely.

The United States has spoken out against Gaddafi but has few contacts among the opposition.

Britain said Wednesday that Gen. Abdul Fattah Younis al-Obeidi, a former Libyan interior minister it described as "the senior military figure" among the rebels, had spoken by telephone with British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

According to a British government statement, Hague told Obeidi that Britain is "deeply concerned about the violence and is in the process of contingency planning for all eventualities, including a no-fly zone, in close conjunction with its allies."

NATO and members of the U.N. Security Council have said that military intervention, including a no-fly zone, would require U.N. authorization. Russia and China, with veto power on the panel, have indicated that they would oppose such authorization.

In Washington, administration officials and lawmakers voiced widely divergent opinions about direct intervention. "If it's ordered, we can do it," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said of a no-fly zone Wednesday. But Gates cautioned against "loose talk about military options."

"A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy air defenses," he said. "It also requires more airplanes than you would find on a single aircraft carrier. So it is a big operation in a big country."

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) appeared to take issue with Gates's comments. "This is not a big air force," he said of Libya in an interview on MSNBC. "It's not an enormously complicated defense system."

'Denial and delusion'

Gaddafi appeared on state television Wednesday to deny the existence of a rebellion in Libya. During a nearly three-hour address in a chamber filled with chanting supporters, the leader dismissed the unrest as an isolated attack by Islamist terrorists.

Gaddafi, who seized power in 1969, warned the West that instability in his country could lead to an increase in Islamist terrorism and a flood of migrant African workers into Europe. He also cautioned that any foreign intervention would lead to "a bloody war."

"He dives deeper and deeper into a state of denial and delusion," said Sharqieh, an expert on conflict resolution in the region. "This is really dangerous. He seems comfortable with this situation now."

The rebels, too, appear ready to carry on the fight.

The battle for Brega began when government fighter jets struck near a munitions dump at Ajdabiya, 40 miles from the port city. At least two other airstrikes landed Wednesday outside Brega, one near a concentration of rebel fighters.

Early in the day, government forces poured into Brega in more than 60 armored vehicles and briefly took control. Rebels from across the eastern region, some from as far as the border with Egypt, rushed to engage them. Truckloads of rebels flashed victory signs on the desert road, having armed themselves with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, machetes, meat skewers, rifles and antiaircraft guns.

In Ajdabiya, about 90 miles south of Benghazi, hundreds of men unloaded and cleaned old military weapons to give to young fighters heading to the front lines.

"These light weapons are not enough," said Mohammed Sultan, 36, waving the rifle that he had used to attack Gaddafi forces.

Along Brega's main road, fighters sheltered behind a small dune as government loyalists launched shells from the center of the city. Khamees Suwairi, a special forces soldier who had defected to the opposition, sat with a bazooka in the white sand before moving in to attack the government position.

"We will die for our freedom," he said.

Moments later, a government warplane struck the spot where Suwairi had been.

By 6 p.m., after hours of fierce fighting, Gaddafi's forces pulled back, and the town was again in rebel control. In the hospital in Ajdabiya, at least six people were brought in with fatal gunshot wounds, doctors said. Some reports put the death toll as high as 14.

About 5,000 fighters advanced farther west to Agail, 15 miles west of Brega. Others planned to move on to Tripoli.

An opposition spokesman said rebel leaders were not encouraging young men to go to Tripoli but could not stop volunteers from advancing west. Already, he said, they had lost 400 young men who had tried to go to Tripoli earlier in the week.

"Our position is still defensive," said Mustafa Gheriani, the spokesman.

In Tripoli, contacts who had been talking to journalists in recent days stopped answering their phones.

One man in the capital, Jalal el Hasia, was taken away by men armed with Kalashnikov rifles who went to his house in the middle of the night, said his brother, Attif el Hasia.

Attif el Hassia has been an unofficial spokesman for the opposition, and he said he thinks Jalal's abduction amounted to retribution.

"I am staying in the revolution," he said. "But my brother doesn't have anything to do with this."

Hasia begged for international help.

"Is this what the international community wants?" he said. "I want the Security Council to convene now. I want them to intervene now. Are we waiting for the massacre?"

fadell@washpost.com hendrixs@washpost.com

Hendrix reported from Cairo. Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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