By Leila Fadel, Anthony Faiola and Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 4, 2011; 9:18 PM
BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Forces loyal to Moammar Gaddafi attacked a rebel-held city west of the capital Friday, while anti-government fighters claimed to have captured a key oil terminal in eastern Libya.
Gaddafi loyalists armed with tanks and heavy machine guns and reportedly led by his son, Khamis Gaddafi, launched an offensive against Zawiyah, about 27 miles west of Tripoli, around midday, rebels said. Dozens of casualties were reported, and cellphone video clips showed people falling to the ground in the city's main square amid the sound of gunshots.
But the opposition was said to have kept control of the city, as the wave of protests sweeping the Arab world continued in Libya and in Yemen, Jordan and Bahrain.
Rebels said they captured the Ras Lanuf oil terminal, 77 miles west of the opposition-held port of Brega in eastern Libya, after heavy fighting with pro-Gaddafi forces. Libya's deputy foreign minister later claimed that Ras Lanuf was still in the government's hands and that "everything is calm" there, news agencies reported.
There were conflicting reports as well about an explosion Friday at a munitions depot near Benghazi, the epicenter of the resistance to Gaddafi. At least 16 people were reported killed in the blast, whose cause was not immediately clear. An initial report blamed bombing by Libyan warplanes. Opposition spokesman Jalal el-Gallal later said it was unclear whether a bomb was planted at the depot or whether something inside the building detonated, possibly when people went inside to collect weapons.
"I don't know if it was sabotage or an accident waiting to happen," Gallal said.
Details were also sketchy about the fighting in Zawiyah, but a doctor there said at least 10 people were killed and more than 100 wounded in fierce clashes throughout the afternoon. A senior rebel leader was reported to be among the dead.
Forces loyal to Gaddafi entered Zawiyah, Libya's fourth-largest city and site of a major oil refinery, from several directions, using tanks, SUVs and trucks armed with heavy machine guns, witnesses said.
News services reported as many as 50 people dead in the fighting, but those reports could not be independently confirmed. One rebel fighter said Gaddafi loyalists shot at people in front of Zawiyah's hospital, blocking the injured from getting treatment.
Pro-Gaddafi forces reached the gates of the city, climbing upon the tallest buildings just outside the edge of town and firing indiscriminately on crowds, said Mohamed Magid, an opposition spokesman. He denied government claims that it had retaken the city, saying: "That is [a] lie. We are still in the square. Zawiyah has not fallen."
In eastern Libya, rebels attacked pro-Gaddafi forces on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf in an attempt to capture the oil terminal on the Mediterranean. Gaddafi's forces fought back with fighter jets and ground troops, killing at least four rebels, according to Mohammed Sultan, a rebel fighter.
Just after dark on Friday, rebels claimed they had taken Ras Lanuf and said they were continuing to push westward. They said they hoped to be in Sirte, Gaddafi's hometown and a stronghold of his loyalists, within two days.
"The plan is to go toward Sirte," said Khaled Sayeh, a spokesman for the opposition's military council. Sirte lies on the Gulf of Sidra about 280 miles east of Tripoli.
Sayeh said that in Ras Lanuf, some Gaddafi forces had hoisted a white flag of surrender and that the rebels had taken charge of the town.
In Tripoli, Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Kaim denied that Ras Lanuf had fallen. "The government controls it," he told reporters, according to Reuters news agency.
There were also reports of an overnight battle in rebel-held Misurata, Libya's third-largest city about 130 miles east of Tripoli.
Rebels later said they remained in control of Misurata but were besieged by Gaddafi forces and were running low on food and ammunition. One local leader called on foreign powers to air-drop supplies.
In the United States, White House spokesman Jay Carney recalled President Obama's remarks on Libya from the previous day, saying, "We're not taking any options off the table either in terms of how we approach it or in terms of how we would work with our international partners to approach the problem."
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One, Carney said Obama, who traveled to Miami Friday for an education event and party fund-raisers, is receiving three briefings a day on Libya. Carney said Obama "is appalled by the use of force against unarmed, peaceful civilians."
Obama "believes that Colonel Gaddafi has lost all legitimacy with his people and in the world at large, and needs to step down and remove himself from power," Carney said.
In Tripoli, anti-government demonstrators took to the streets after Friday prayers despite a heavy security crackdown. They scattered only after pro-Gaddafi forces fired tear gas, then live ammunition, into the crowd, witnesses said.
The protest, timed to coincide with the Muslim holy day, was echoed across the Middle East, with tens of thousands of demonstrators gathering in Yemen, Bahrain and Jordan after midday prayers.
There were also demonstrations Friday across Saudi Arabia, where people gathered to demand the release of political prisoners and greater political freedoms. The main protests - although small compared to the ones sweeping other Arab countries - were in the Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia's oil-rich area with a heavy Shiite population.
A video posted on YouTube appeared to show several hundred protesters gathering in Riyadh, outside the capital's al-Rajhi mosque, and activists said a demonstration also took place in the coastal city of Jiddah.
Demonstrations are rare in Saudi Arabia, and observers of the kingdom have been closely watching to see whether the rage that has swept the Arab world would spread to the world's oil producer.
In northern Yemen, soldiers opened fire at anti-government protesters, killing four people and wounding seven as demonstrations against longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh continued, the Associated Press reported.
For weeks, Yemen has been rocked by daily protests inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Tens of thousands turned out Friday in the capital, Sanaa, to demand Saleh's immediate ouster and reject his offer to step down after national elections.
In Manama, Bahrain, huge crowds packed a central highway, waving red-and-white Bahraini flags and chanting for the government to resign. At the same time, thousands marched on the offices of Bahrain's state television station, accusing the station of minimizing the extent of recent protests, AP reported.
The gatherings appeared to be the largest yet in an island nation that for the past three weeks has been paralyzed by pro-democracy demonstrations. Some leading opposition groups agreed Thursday to negotiations with Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa over reforms that would give the country's Shiite majority more of a voice in government. But many protesters said that those groups did not speak for them, and no resolution appeared immediately at hand.
In Jordan, thousands rallied Friday in central Amman, extending what has become a weekly call for reform and demanding the ouster of Prime Minister Maarouf al-Bakhit, appointed last month by King Abdullah II in an attempt to placate critics.
The demonstration was organized by the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group in Jordan, and by smaller leftist groups. Protesters shouted, "The people want to reform the regime," a distinct echo of the battle-cry of the Egyptian revolution: "The people want to topple the regime." Speakers and placards called for Bakhit's removal, dissolution of parliament and creation of an elected government to replace the current system, in which the prime minister is appointed by the king.
A heavy police presence surrounded the protesters, separating them from a small group of pro-monarchy demonstrators.
As unrest continues to spiral throughout the region, the Obama administration is preparing for the possibility that a new generation of Islamist governments could take power in North Africa and the Middle East.
An internal assessment ordered by the White House last month identified large ideological differences between different Islamist movements, and officials are working to analyze how the developments could affect U.S. foreign policy around the globe.
Much of the world's attention continues to focus on Libya, where rebel leaders are seeking international air power to help them fight Gaddafi. Obama and other world leaders have said their militaries could intervene under some possible scenarios, but they are not rushing to embrace the idea.
Friday's demonstration in Tripoli drew at least 1,500 people, according to news service reports. While relatively small, the gathering showed that anti-Gaddafi groups remain energized in the capital, despite multiple crackdowns and considerable bloodshed in recent weeks.
Ahead of the protest, the government set up roadblocks around the city, searching vehicles, AP reported. Additionally, the news agency said, Internet access appeared to be cut off in the city. A group of foreign journalists was blocked from leaving their hotel to observe the protests.
"These are exceptional circumstances," Gaddafi's spokesman Mussa Ibrahim, said according to the al-Arabiya news agency. "I know you're going to talk about it and twist it the way you want. We are preparing to pay this price of preventing you guys from reporting to avoid turning Tripoli into Baghdad."
Faiola reported from Tunis. Wilgoren reported from Washington. Correspondents Michael Birnaum in Manama, Bahrain; Joel Greenberg in Amman, Jordan; and Portia Walker in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.