Gaddafi forces mount fierce counterattack; witnesses describe 'massacre' in city under siege

Two weapons depots were hit when a pro-Gaddafi warplane hit Benghazi, Libya. The rebels claim they seized the town of Ras Lanuf with its crucial oil-shipping terminal. (March 4)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 5, 2011; 9:11 AM

BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi escalated their fiercest counterattack yet against the opposition Saturday, laying violent siege to a rebel enclave in the strategic western port city of Zawiyah.

A government campaign unleashed Friday was continuing unabated, as troops shelled residential neighborhoods and rolled into the city in tanks. Rebels, who were still managing to hold the city, described a "massacre" with dozens dead and hundreds wounded.

The lethal force of the government offensive raised the stakes for Washington and its Western allies. They have threatened military intervention if the Gaddafi government crosses red lines including the systematic endangerment of defenseless civilians or if the battle for Libya evolves into a long-term, bloody stalemate.

Yet if anything, the fresh wave of attacks underscored Gaddafi's ability to press defiantly ahead with a brutal campaign to reclaim land lost to the rebels and squelch dissent within bastions of government control. The government appeared to be trying to secure a buffer zone around Tripoli and target areas vital to the country's oil industry, taking aim at cities and ports that have given the rebels a foothold close to the capital.

The White House expressed renewed alarm, saying that President Obama is "appalled by the use of force against unarmed, peaceful civilians." Obama is being briefed on Libya three times a day, and "we're not taking any options off the table," said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary.

With thousands of refugees stuck on the Tunisian border with Libya, two U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo planes flew in humanitarian supplies for them Friday and planned to return Saturday to pick up Egyptian refugees and fly them home.

The fiercest attack fell on the opposition-held city of Zawiyah, home to one of Libya's largest oil refineries and situated 27 miles west of Tripoli. Official Libyan media said the government had retaken the city, though the rebels there denied it. As of early Saturday, the city remained under siege.

Gaddafi loyalists armed with tanks and heavy machine guns and reportedly led by his son Khamis Gaddafi launched the offensive around midday Friday, rebels said. Forces loyal to Gaddafi entered the city from several directions, using tanks, sport-utility vehicles and trucks armed with heavy machine guns, witnesses said. They also laid siege to the city with mortar fire.

On Saturday, the Gaddafi loyalists were still pressing their counterattack on the city. At 7 a.m. local time, tanks rolled into the city accompanied by heavy shelling and machine-gun assaults, with witnesses reporting great plumes of black smoke bellowing from various neighborhoods. Yet the rebels succeeded, witnesses said, in driving Gaddafi's forces out of the town center after blowing up two tanks with hand-held rocket-propelled grenades. Hundreds of opposition forces were still hunkered down with machine guns, defending the town square as the shelling of the city continued.

"It is a massacre, they are striking civilians, they are attacking us from all directions," said Mohammed Ahmad, a 31-year-old doctor. He said he was told by other doctors of at least 70 victims lying dead in just one part of town. "People are running around shouting, 'God is great.' You can hear the shooting everywhere. This is madness. Why is the international community not interfering?"

Eyewitnesses said that Gaddafi's forces were shelling even residential neighborhoods, flattening entire houses. Rebels, however, claimed to be inflicting heavy damage on their better-armed opponents, saying dozens of Gaddafi's fighters had been killed. Still others were captured, they said, and being held as POWS. Though the opposition repelled the attempt to take the town square, they were bracing for another attack amid reports Gaddafi was sending reinforcements.

"They did not expect this kind of resistance. They thought we were weak," said Mohammed Salem, 23, a medical student turned rebel fighter in Zawiyah. "We are expecting yet another and more forceful attack against us."

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